A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in college, I’d often find myself driving through McChord  Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in large part because

a) I could, and

b) there were SO many cool airplanes there.

One weekend they had an actual air show, with the Thunderbirds, and aerial demonstrations of guys jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, explosions, the whole works.  It was great.  I got to walk around the flight line and look at planes up close I’d only been able to look at from a distance, and in some cases, I was able to go out and either touch them or actually, the most fun, sitting in the cockpit of a military airplane, and pretending to fly it, you know, just like you do when you’re a kid.

So later that week, after the airshow was over in reality, but I was still reliving it in my mind, I happened to go over to McChord, and look out at that very same flight line, and of all things, found an F-4 Phantom in the very last spot on the left.  This is a plane that sucks down more gas in a minute than your car does all year.  Speaking of cars, I parked mine in a legal zone (no, really) and was just drawn to the Phantom.

I walked over toward it, with my hands behind my back – I wanted to be sure that if anyone did see me and had this feeling like I shouldn’t be there, that my hands were in a very obvious spot of not being able to do anything…

The plane was facing away from me, and I walked around it clockwise, starting on the left side and working my way around.  I looked at, but didn’t touch those elevators that were angled down so sharply.

I walked further, hands still behind my back, and ducked under the wingtip, which is angled up ever so slightly.

I looked into the engine intakes, imagining how much air they must have sucked in as those big J-79 engines spooled up.

I couldn’t see into the cockpit, but walked around the front of the plane – still careful not to touch anything, and made it back around the other side, and finally came to the gaping maw that was the back end of those engines.  The F-4’s engines have what are called ‘afterburners’ – which means simply that if you have the jet engine running at full throttle, and the engine simply can’t put out more thrust, you start pumping buckets of fuel into the hot exhaust – where it – well, it doesn’t ‘explode’ – but all those pictures you see of military planes with 20-30 foot flames out the back? That’s what happens when you hit the afterburners.  It can easily double the thrust of an engine.

Now the J-79 engine was weird, in a way… It was the one engine the military had that, surgeon general’s warning or not, they simply couldn’t get to stop smoking.  If it was idling, it was fine.  If it was in full afterburner, it was fine.  If it was anywhere in between, it smoked.

It was like leaving a big arrow penciled into the sky saying, “Hi! Here I am!”  All you had to do was look up and follow the pencil mark in the sky.  At the end, sure as anything, there’d be an F-4.

It made camouflage and stealth kind of a moot point.

But those engines, oh gosh – I’d seen what they could do in real life.   I was in a KC-135 tanker, shooting pictures of one being refueled somewhere over Missouri.  The plane, call sign “Misty 42”, was in the pre-connect position 50 feet behind us.  Gus, the boom operator (the boom being the big pipe that did the refueling) called out on the radio “Misty 42, forward 50” – as in “come forward 50 feet” – and this 60,000 pound plane that was parked back there behind us, just shot forward those 50 feet and then stopped like he was anchored there – right where Gus could top it off.  And when Misty 42 was finished, I saw something I’d only seen in movies – the pilot banked hard right, pulled hard on the stick, peeled off, and was gone.

So when those engines were running, they would just leave this layer of soot in the sky, and, coming back down from the sky and to that flight line, where I was standing with both hands behind my back, I was mesmerized by the business end of these huge jet engines, some of that soot I was talking about had been left inside the engines, creating a blackness so total it would make charcoal look white.  It gave a totally new definition to the term “black hole” and I was wondering how much of a problem it would be to swipe a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.

It was this wondering that caused curiosity to prevail over common sense.

…but not by much…

I unclasped my hands, and slowly, with my right pinkie, swiped it against the inside of that engine, to see if any of that blackness would actually come off.  It didn’t seem to, I was looking at my pinkie, trying to figure it out, when

“Can I help you, sir?”

Uh oh…

One of the United States Air Force’s finest SP’s (Security Police) was standing there, in uniform, which was as complete as a military cop’s uniform could be…

“Uh, no, actually, I was just looking at the F-4 here”

“Did you know, sir, that you’re not allowed to be here?”

My gosh he was polite…

On the other hand, he could afford to be.  He had Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson snug in a leather holster at his side to help him out, should he need it.

“Sir, see, there’s this red line here on the pavement…”

He was right… there was indeed a red line on the pavement…

“Sir, you’re not supposed to cross that line.”

“Really?”

“Did you see the signs painted on the ground, sir?”

“No – I mean, I was just here the other day…”

“Sir, that was for the air show.  See here?”

…and he walked me over to where one of the signs was indeed painted in a big white rectangle on the ground.

“They’re painted on the ground every 100 feet.”

And I’d parked my car beside the hangar, and walked right out there, between two of them, totally oblivious to the signs, and totally focused on the F-4…

“Sir, can you read the line in red there, near the bottom?”

I started reading the stenciled letters on the pavement.

“Sir, do you understand what that means?”

And things suddenly became very clear.  That line there meant that Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson didn’t necessarily have to stay in their little leather holster, they could have come out to back up the Security Police officer and no one would have batted an eye.

“Yes sir, I do.”

He escorted me back to my car, realizing that I was just a young kid not much younger than he was, likely just as much of an airplane nut as he was, but I was driving a little red Saab (1967 model 96, 3 cylinder, two stroke, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious) at the time, all by myself, and he was driving a blue Air Force police cruiser, with his pals Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson quietly squeezed into the front seat with him.

I was a little more careful from there on out, but I still considered McChord my home away from home.

Fast forward 21 years.  I’d gotten married, had the wonderful privilege of becoming a father, and lo and behold, there was another air show at McChord AFB.  I took my son to see the show, and this time I got to the McChord AFB air show in a little blue Saab (1968 model 96, Deluxe, with a V-4 engine, and a 4 speed transmission, on the column, for those of you who are curious), and this time, I wasn’t alone.

We watched, and heard the Thunderbirds tear the sky apart again – watched the aerial drops, the explosions, all the cool stuff, it was great  – and then as we were walking through the displays – I realized I’d been there before.  Not just on McChord AFB, but as I looked around, wondering why the hangars looked familiar, and why the tower looked so familiar, not just individually, but collectively, I felt this incredible feeling of déjà vu, suddenly I realized I was standing on the spot – THE VERY SPOT where that F-4, the SP, and Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson had been those many years earlier.

I’d told my son the story you just read more than once, to the point where he could do the little swipe with his pinkie just exactly like I did it, and I knew, I just knew, I had to show him that spot, and take a picture of the sign on the ground, with the red letters, and the red line on it.

And I did…

Sure enough… it was still there.

I got the shot of him with the sign in the story I’d told him so many times.

Fast forward again – to the year 2010, I’d done a presentation in Tucson, and found that after the presentation, we had a few hours to do some touristy things, and given the fact that I am an airplane nut, and that the last time we’d been in Tucson I’d only been able to drive past it, the Pima Air Museum was definitely on our list.  It has hundreds of airplanes, and in the few hours we had, we tried to see as many as we could.  We walked past some, paused for a moment at others.

And then I saw an F-4 and stopped cold.

A Phantom.

“Michael! This is it! This is the kind of plane I was talking about!” –

…and I did the little pinkie swipe with my right hand.

He knew exactly what I meant, and before I could do anything or even stop him, he’d gone to the back of the plane, and I suddenly knew what the SP had seen those many years ago.

Without me saying another word, Michael had not only gone to the back of that Phantom – but gone to the right engine, and with his left hand still held firmly in the small of his back, like I’d done when I was the very same age, he took his pinkie, and swiped a little soot off the engine of a Phantom.  ­

And no one stopped him.

© Tom Roush, 2010

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