God Bless Midwest Catholics

Over the weekend of June 8-10, I traveled to Washington DC for a wedding. It was held in St. Veronica’s church in Fairfax County. The ceremony was not particularly sentimental. The vows were traditional. The readings were appropriate and mildly unexpected: no 1 Corinthians chapter 13.* The homily was neither moving nor eloquent but was down-to-earth and accessible. The consecration was professional rather than grave or solemn. Nobody exclaimed in penetrating whispers after the mass, “What a beautiful ceremony!” The best accolade I heard while exiting the church was a simple, “that was very nice.” And it was nice. It was simply nice.

For me, the simple niceness of the ceremony had a lasting effect and rare value. The clumsy analogies in the homily referenced the groom’s profession as an artist and the bride’s profession as a doctor to point out that a successful relationship requires both creativity and imagination from the artist’s side, and discipline and precision from the doctor’s side. He pointed out that the practical foundation of a good marriage is, in essence, good business sense (the organized hospital); while the personal or spiritual element foundation requires quiet, comfortable, inspired interaction (found in the studio). The entire content of the homily, in fact, was plain advice on how to make a permanent, close relationship between two people work.

In essence, the priest made the wedding ceremony one of commitment. He invited us, the family and friends of the new couple, to witness their bond. The advice he gave, not preachy, was a resonant blueprint for a good marriage. Sentimentality is pretty, but steadiness is more lasting. Steadiness is made of loyalty and care–and while it springs from the more erotic love of two young people who have “fallen for each other,” it is in a sense more romantic. It is the source of contentment and happiness over a long life, instead of over a short period.

Then, before distributing Communion, the priest reminded his congregation that the Catholic Church refuses the Eucharist to those who aren’t Catholic themselves, because the sacrament is not only the body and blood of Christ, but also represents the recipient’s full accord with the teachings and laws of the Church. Since about a quarter of those present did not appear Catholic, I thought this was an awkward thing to say. It seems rude and demeaning, probably, to them, who consider themselves as much a Christian than any Catholic. But, as a priest, he is bound to respect and uphold the laws of the Church, even when it is unpleasant. And I admired him for it.

During my trip back on Sunday, I had a two and a half hour layover in Chicago’s Midway airport. As I walked through the terminal to my next gate, so I could find a place to settle down and read, I heard over the intercom an announcement for Mass. Though I had planned to go to Mass that evening (my church offers a 5:30 PM Mass), I was intrigued. I changed course for the chapel and took my place in one of the seats.

Slowly, the place filled up. There were several families with children, many couples of all ages, and many solitary travelers (like me) in the room before Mass started. Eventually it was standing room only. The priest entered quietly, we all stood, then he started by admonishing that we all should stay after communion for the completion of the Mass. He also offered confession afterward to anyone who was interested. Again, I found this admirable — admonishment discussing others’ sins are not something one does gracefully, if at all, in our culture. The prevailing attitude of “who are you to judge ME?” makes such religious matters awkward, like stating the Catholic Church’s position on communion. Too often, then, are these subjects ignored. It is easier to talk about other aspects of the faith. But this priest–frail, old and a stranger to all of us–invoked his ecclesiastic authority.

I should point out here that I don’t think many of the “parishioners” at the airport Mass needed the priest’s reminders. We were a motley collection, consisting mostly of private, sometimes ugly people quietly going about our business. There was nothing exceptionally social in our demeanor, nor particularly inspired about our worship (though we did sing at times). I felt, though, a strong and solid faith among us; everyone there seemed to be enjoying their duty to God in a quiet, satisfied, and lasting way. It reminded me of Notre Dame, where I saw the same thing — students and professors who rarely spoke about religions went to Mass quietly every weekend and led essentially good lives of kindness and generosity.

Was the priest at the wedding from the Midwest? I don’t know, but I heard the trace of a flat “a” sound while he spoke that reminded me strongly of the Midwestern accents. His homily was a study in the plain, practical common sense that Midwesterners bring to their religion and religious duties, which characterized the short Sunday travelers Mass at Midway airport. And though I go to a church now that is much more charismatic, I recognize a lot of value in good sense and practical discipline in my own life, spiritual or otherwise.

I certainly don’t think the Notre Dame Mass experience lacked inspiration or that my current Mass experience lacks values–neither is true. But like a relationship between two people, a relationship with God also requires both inspiration and work. And since I have become so used to the inspiration side, it was good to be reminded of the “work” side.

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First Hornet Flight and the Great Southwest

This past weekend I climbed into an F/A-18D Hornet for the first time. From Friday to Sunday I completed five flights. The loss of my weekend was well worth the opportunity to “go on the road,” as the say here, because I got to explore a part of the country I had hitherto only read about.

Friday morning my instructor and I manned up the jet to fly out to Scottsdale, AZ and the to Albuquerque, NM. We had five flights to do, so we started by flying north to Fresno, and then southeast to spend that night in Scottsdale. The first flight is mostly an introduction, so we took time to explore the aircraft capabilities offshore. Part of that is demonstrating turn rates, acceleration, and climb capabilities (all of which are important to know and use when fighting). There, for the first time in my life, I broke the sound barrier. It was actually much smoother than I expected–no more than a slight bump passing Mach 1.0, and then again decelerating. Since it has been six and a half months since I’ve aircrewed a jet, I experienced a little nausea during the maneuvers and some difficulty counteracting the G forces. I was also a bit nervous. But all went according to plan and I didn’t actually get airsick, so all was well. We flew directly over Los Angeles and got to see the entire city from the west hills to Irvine and Burbank, then passed over the inland desert. My attention for most of the rest of that flight was held by the Sierra Nevada in the distance, floating and snowcapped.

We spent about two hours on deck in Fresno, refueling with pizza and Gatorade, and then got on the way to Scottsdale. Our original intention was to fly over the Grand Canyon, but since the sun was westering and we wanted to make it to Scottsdale while it was still light, we decided to scrap that plan and turn to our destination. Having seen it twice from the air (once in a commercial jet), I still have a hard time comprehending just how barren the Southwest is. Our visibility from the jet was unlimited, and nowhere did I see anything but brown, bare, rugged desert. Occasionally a dry lakebed would emphasize the essential lifelessness of the place. It was beautiful, though. It was a place of immense and magnificent solitude. As an interesting bit of trivia is that the Space Shuttle uses one of the dry lakebeds as a place to land – it essentially extends from the end of the normal runway for another three or four miles.

The land becomes more mountainous in the Phoenix area. Small ranges or single mountains grow at random from an otherwise flat desert. Phoenix airspace has become very busy, and my instructor demonstrated the Air-to-Air radar for me by locking up “shooting” other aircraft. We got Scottsdale airfield in sight just as the sun set, and performed a 7.5 G break over the field – far more Gs than I had previously pulled in any jet. That is, incidentally, the maximum for the F/A-18. It was a very exciting, high-performance maneuver and it was a suitable end to an exciting (almost overwhelming day).

The next morning we took departed the Phoenix area to the north. This time we had plenty of daylight, beautiful weather, and were going to see the Grand Canyon if we could. On our way there we passed both Sedona, with its incredibly red gorges and rocks, and Flagstaff mountain, which stands as a solitary snow-capped beacon over the desert. With the canyon in sight, Air Traffic Control (ATC) asked us if we wanted the “canyon tour,” then (unusually) cleared us to deviate right or left as necessary to see the whole thing. Probably only those reading this who have actually visited the Grand Canyon can understand how awesome an experience it is. The terrain around it is 6,600 feet above sea level (and incidentally, was lightly dusted with snow). The Canyon walls themselves plunged alarmingly into a seemingly infinite set of alternate gorges and peaks. It was very colorful, but the most distinct element was simply how vertical the rock formations were. Spires and ridges of stone reared thousands of feet nearly straight up in the air. At the bottom of the canyon was no valley; the Colorado river wound through what was purely a trough of stone. The whole edifice covered hundreds of miles of desert. There are literally no words to adequately describe it, but it was good to fly lazily mere thousands of feet over the canyon and drink in its majesty.

Once we were sufficiently overwhelmed, we called ATC and told them we were heading to Albuquerque. We had a lot of fuel left, so we cruised pretty quickly over there. The Albuquerque airport sits at 5,355 feet above sea level (higher than Denver), and the air is thin enough that the jet takes a lot longer to slow down before landing and a lot longer to stop once touched down, which was interesting and just a bit hairy. We met my instructor’s mother at the terminal, and decided to see the sights of the city. Albuquerque sits on the high desert, with mountains (Sandia peak) towering to the east. There is a famous tram that runs to the top (really more a gondola), which claims to be the longest in the world. We decided to go up, check out the view, and have lunch. It was an amazing ride – the west slopes of the mountain are bare and vertical, with stunted little firs growing trained by the constant wind. Toward the top, three and four feet of ice were plastered horizontally on the boughs. At the top itself, the temperature was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I never knew the southwest could get so cold! Furthermore, the altitude up there is 10,300 feet above sea level. To give you some perspective on how high that really is, in naval aircraft we are required to be wearing oxygen masks above 10,000 feet in order to prevent hypoxia, or dangerous oxygen depletion. The three of us sat up there in the restaurant and drank down tea and coffee to stay warm, and admired the 100-mile views out to other mountain ranges. Around us sat skiers and snowboarders who ride the tram up and ski down the east slopes of the mountain, which is serviced by three lifts and has long, beautiful, powdery runs–which is something else I didn’t know was in the southwest. The desert sunset from the top of the that mountain was an incredible spectacle. When our ticket finally got called to ride down, we froze in the now four degree air and forty mile-an-hour wind blast until the tram arrived, wondering if we’d ever been colder in our collective lives. I certainly hadn’t.

That night we flew back to North Island Naval Air Station, which is on the island of Coronado in San Diego. Technically still on cross country, it was nice to sleep in my own bed again. Flying at night is peaceful, because the radios are quiet and the spread lights look very peaceful from above. After our ordeal on the mountain top and our tour of the Grand Canyon, we welcomed the relatively stress-free flight back home. The next morning (Sunday morning), we drove back to the jet and took off for the extremely short trip back to Miramar. Fortunately, we had fuel and time so we went back out over the water to maneuver the jet again, and I got to fly up to 48,000 feet and see the curvature of the earth along the horizon, then unloaded (put the jet into 0-G flight) and pushed the airspeed up to 1.38 Mach. My instructor practiced some Air Combat maneuvering at high Gs (which has left my legs quite sore), and we returned to the field in time to debrief and get home for the Super Bowl.

Now, back on the ground, I am tired. My body needs to get used to flying again – the pressure changes, the G forces, the mental strain of operating systems and talking on the radio. But it was definitely fun–I still revel in the fact I am flying in a plane that can accidentally break the speed of sound if the pilot isn’t paying attention, and I welcome the opportunity to see new places. It is good to be here again.

The Adventure of Dennis

It feels like a long time since I last wrote, and I miss it. Writing my experiences in this on-going journal is enjoyable and cathartic. Recently, however, I have been occupied with memorization and studying such that I had little time to reflect upon and re-write my adventures into something that sounded like an exciting life. Then Hurricane Dennis hit Pensacola. And though this kind of weather probably seems far away to most of you (it always did to me), it is a very big deal here.

I didn’t really pay attention to the path of Dennis (reported in the news) as it traveled up through the Caribbean past Haiti and Jamaica. When it closed in on Cuba, the hurricane watchers here at Naval Air Station Pensacola decided to cancel activities last Friday and fly the planes out to a safer location. As our collective eyes turned toward the storm, it aimed toward us much as Ivan did last November, and we were told to evacuate. There were all hands meetings Thursday afternoon and Friday morning to officially secure the Naval Air Station and evacuate all personnel by Saturday morning at six.

I left Pensacola on Friday morning under clear, beautiful skies. I was headed to Chapel Hill, NC, to take refuge with a high school friend of mine there. I drove past long lines at the few gas stations that still had fuel. The superstores (Wal-mart, Target, etc) had posted large signs listing products they were out of (plywood, lumber, fresh water, and so on). The radio stations were broadcasting National Weather Center flood warnings, potential evacuation orders, and hurricane advisories. This all stood in stark contrast to the absolutely pristine weather throughout the Southeast United States that day. It all seemed very ironic.

For those of you under the impression that western States are big, and eastern ones are small (as I used to be), let me be the first to disabuse you. Twelve hours I drove that day, all of it on the freeways and none of it in traffic. However, my friend made me very welcome, and the evactuaion felt more like a vacation. Essentially, I spent a carefree weekend checking out the college hangouts of UNC Chapel Hill. The only dose of reality I had was my morning telephone call to my class leader, letting him know I was alive, and periodic visits to the Weather Channel. I have to admit, it looked pretty menacing for most of Saturday and Sunday. Dennis followed the same path as Ivan, and predictions continued to place Pensacola right in the middle or just to the east of the middle of his projected path. East of the eye is the most dangerous place to be in a hurricane. The earth’s rotation, called the “Corialis Force,” imparts a counterclockwise motion to air around a low pressure area, which means that to the east of the hurricane, the wind is blowing off the ocean and has greater force than wind coming off the land (on the western side of the eye).

We were lucky, though. Dennis moved northward and came ashore right at Pensacola Beach, to the east of the city – the best possible scenario. There was minimal damage.The Navy Base was largely unaffected. I got the call to come back on Monday morning, and by the early afternoon I was on my way. Power had largely been restored to the Pensacola area by 11 PM as I drove in (though there continues to be a gasoline shortage), and at nearly every intersection there were state troopers and workmen repairing traffic lights, signposts, and power lines.

So the adventure ended well. I am impressed by the people of Pensacola and its environs. Everybody I met was more than willing to help with evacuation and hurricane preparedness, and most were calm and proactive about getting out. I had vague ideas of mass panic and desperate shortages at the onset of a hurricane, but Pensacola had prepared well (though, to be fair, it has significant previous experience) and the repairmen have worked straight shifts since Monday afternoon to restore power, put the traffic grid back together, and direct the return of evacuees.

I have just finished putting my apartment back together – pulling televisions out of closets, replacing the valuables that I carried with me, and resetting all the clocks. I have a test soon, and the next phase of flights is imminent, but such things are far from my mind. As I write this, Tropical Storm Emily is spinning north out of the Atlantic toward the Caribbean. Here we go again…

Failure and Learning

I write this post in the absolute center of all civilization: The Airport. How different from the schedule-dominated life of the Marine Corps; how different from the mud and sweat of field exercises! The transition is not so much difficult – it is enjoyable to sit among a variety of people, casually listening to music from my headphones – but ironic. It is hard to take this life seriously after having spent time in the field. If I stop to consider, I am surprised that a bunch of 18-24 year old young adults can switch so easily from discipline, effort, and alertness of Marine training to the superficial complexity and savvy of a trend-driven society. There’s a Hemingway-esque romance about it, as if I have a superior perch from which to observe the ‘normal’ world.

Last week was a tough one, training-wise. We completed our 10-mile forced march (in the rain, which is hard on both one’s feet and one’s motivation) as well as FEX II, an acronym that stands for Field EXercise II. This was our first chance to lead and conduct platoon-level operations, with the added concepts of automatic weapons, support-by-fire positions, obstacle plans, offensive tactics (like envelopment), and prepared defensive positions. Like everything else involved in the infantry, it is mentally very challenging. How should you divide your manpower? How should you weight your main effort, or main attack? How can you best use your support-by-fire assets? What is your engineering/obstacle plan? What codes and signals do you use to coordinate the movement of 40-odd people through thick underbrush without bunching your attack up and risking friendly-fire casualties? How do you motivate everybody to dig waist-deep into rock-hard soil? We spent those two days experimenting with different kinds of attacks, trying to properly position grenade launchers and machine guns, attempting to set up barbed-wire obstacles, and hacking ourselves into defensive positions. At night, we sat up behind our machine-guns, alert for attacks. We didn’t sleep. And we struggled to succeed.

I hope I have convinced you that the stereotype of a “dumb grunt” is completely untrue. Besides the grueling physical activity required, infantry operations require a firm grasp of technical data (such as weapon ranges and effects, ideal obstacle configurations, and fire support concepts) as well as creativity to make a plan that uses the assets available in a cohesive, mutually-supporting manner. Only thus is the mission accomplished correctly, which is to say as expeditiously as possible, with the fewest lives lost. It is one of the most mentally difficult things I have ever done – it ranks up there with grappling with the ideas of Plato, Kant, and some very abstract Theology. And speaking of lives lost, there is an additional wrinkle: if you are “dumb” and make a mistake, your people die, and it is your fault. Then you might go to jail, because their lives were your responsiblity. And that makes the exercise even harder. The infantry is quite a bit more intellectually demanding and emotionally stressful than civilian jobs, as my non-military peers tell it. “Dumb grunt” is a grossly ironic title.

We didn’t do very well this week, and that’s what made it so rough. No matter what “bad things” happen out there – if you cut your hands, bash your face against your rifle, twist your ankle, and develop a nasty gastrointestinal disorder – if your operations are successful and your mission accomplished, then you have a great time. If, on the other hand, everything goes right except your attacks (or your defense), then the field sucks. I have thus learned that personal comfort is perhaps the least important thing about Field Ops. I would trade even my own health and wholeness for just a little more success. But hopefully by the next exercise, I will be more combat-effective, and a better asset to my platoon.

For now, though, we got a good lecture on our mistakes and attitude (lazy and sullen) from our platoon commander, who imparted this bit of wisdom that I think worth passing on. Always ask yourself these four questions: what am I doing? why am I doing it? what is it good for? and how do I know? If by the answers to these questions you discover you are doing something wrong (like eating chow in the field while everybody else is working hungry), then stop. I firmly believe that most of our personal failings are due to the fact that we make easy, wrong choices instead of more difficult, less pleasant, right choices. It seems so obvious to me now that each wrong choice I make out there renders my team less effective, and in this business of warfighting and killing, that is inexcusable. More generally, though, wrong choices affect my goodness throughout my life. I think that being a good person is the greatest task we have in this life, for it affects our relationships, our success, our health, and most importantly our happiness. And in my platoon commander’s angry questions I found a way to do better.

Incidentally, it is very eerie in the field at night. I mentioned earlier our nighttime 9-mile forced march, which took place under a beautiful silvery moon. But though we had similar conditions this past week, the effect was strange and silent as we settled into defensive positions. Stranger still, it got almost imperceptibly darker, and shortly I began to hear the faint sound of rushing water. Everything was so still and alone I remember wondering quite seriously whether I was imagining things or not – the silvery light seemed once so permanent that I literally couldn’t believe it was gone, then the rushing water – though I had just noticed it – seemed to have gone on since the beginning of time. If that sounds melodramatic, I promise you it seemed both natural and quite disturbing in the profound solitude of that night. When it finally began to rain, it seemed the strangest thing yet – the whole experience was decidely surreal. It seems even more so now that I am surrounded by the light and structure of civilization.

Between the hike and the FEX this week I feel pretty drained. But I am on my way to a wedding! It is exciting to travel, and I can’t wait to see my old friends. A little vacation to normalcy will (I hope) return me to training next week eager to go back to the field–and do a little better than last time.