Music has this magical quality of being able to transport you to a place and time. I was driving home on Monday, listening to the 80s channel on Sirius/XM and they were recounting the top songs from this week in 1986. Number three was Highway to the Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins. It stirred up some memories. It was a beautiful afternoon and combined with the music I was transported back in time. Life seemed so full of promise and possibility.
For me the summer of 1986 was what my old roommate called the “god summer.” The summer after graduation from the US Air Force Academy. I felt invincible and immortal. When you are that age you don’t think about mortality or danger in the same way you do at 55. I was all of 21 years old, fit, and I still had a full head of hair, and I was about to embark on an Air Force career as a pilot. At least that was the plan.
Several months earlier Top Gun had been released. It was only a few short weeks from graduation and my friends and I all knew we were going to be flying jets in a few months. It had a huge emotional impact on us all. We wanted to be fighter pilots. A few of us actually made it.
Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) is a special thing. They say you can teach a monkey to fly if you have enough bananas. The trick for the Air Force version is pacing. You have to stay on their timeline. But some parts of it were incredibly cool. It’s hard to describe the feeling of walking off the flightline in your G-suit, carrying your helmet, after a T-38 sortie that went well. I felt like Maverick or Iceman. I even had a callsign: Woodrow. Then I went out and drove my motorcycle home. Almost cliché. But it was real.
I have to admit, up to this point in my life I had been successful at everything I had put my mind to. Somewhere near the midpoint I was struck with a crisis of confidence. I was deeply concerned that I might not make it through. It was a real ego check. It was a struggle every day. The first half of the program it was a minimum of twelve-hour days, and often multiple sorties, and any downtime was filled to the brim with studying. Instruments and procedures and systems. By the end of the steaming hot Mississippi day I was ready to let it all go. I don’t have the mentality to do the same thing for that long, which only made it harder.
It wasn’t all work, though. Work hard play harder. Weekends were filled with lots of beer and dancing. I actually had a radio show at the local college radio station on Saturday evenings with my best friend. After the show we would find a party. That lasted until summer hit its stride and we didn’t want to leave the pool to go turn vinyl.
We were so young.
It’s interesting looking back a little more than thirty years and seeing how much time I wasted. I wasted it having fun for the most part, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking my off time was spent productively. My advice to myself at that age, or anyone at that age, would be to find something you are passionate about, no matter what it is, and throw yourself whole hog into doing it. It took me a long time to figure out what that was, not that I was trying all that hard to figure it out.
If you haven’t seen it yet, they are making a sequel to Top Gun. Here is the trailer: Top Gun: Maverick. It looks on first blush to be a cheesy rehash of all the cool stuff from the original.
I don’t care. Take my money.
I will love this movie regardless.
While listening to Highway to the Danger Zone, it was mentioned that Kenny Loggins confirmed it will be in the new movie. The song itself is a little bittersweet for me. A few of the guys that I was a year behind at the Academy were graduating UPT that following summer. We were all in the same cadet squadron when I was a freshman and they were sophomores. They were all good guys and had a house on the edge of town with a pool. They had some epic parties. The one I remember best was the one after their assignment night. Pete got an F-15 and he played Highway to the Danger Zone over and over. He flew fighters for several years until his commitment was up and then got out of the Air Force. Sometime later he decided to rejoin and I don’t have the details, but he had a fatal crash in the jet.
I will always remember 22-year-old Pete, so excited to fly the F-15, screaming the lyrics to Highway to the Danger Zone and dancing around his house.
I graduated from pilot training in the fall of 1987 and ended up staying in the Air Force
for thirty-two years as a pilot. Not a fighter pilot. I ended up in the KC-135 Stratotanker. I still teach younger pilots how to fly it.
I wonder how things would have changed if I had devoted myself to something at an earlier age, whether it might have been art or writing. Even gaming, but with a different tact, actually making something or writing articles about it for magazines.
Water under the bridge, but it was nice to reflect on that summer. I have no real regrets. Life is good and only getting better.