My study may be a mess, but, on one wall, I have meticulously created a shrine of sorts. My “Air Force Wall” is—like my connections to its theme—a mixture of the authentic and inauthentic. The shrine came together mostly by accident. As I chose things to put up on the wall, it was only when I saw the pattern that was emerging that I made the air force theme deliberate.
Two of my half-siblings, sister Terri and late brother Michael, as well as my late brother-in-law Brian (Teri’s husband), were in the United States Air Force. While I was never an airman myself (a campaign to change the terminology to reflect gender neutrality is afoot but, I believe, has yet to take effect), I can say I played one in a movie, though my part was left on the cutting room floor. In my childhood, I did fantasize about joining the U.S. Air Force, but although that never happened, my fascination with flying and those who fly is akin to a spiritual affinity, despite my never having taken flying lessons and, in fact, suffering from a fear of heights! (Once in the 1980s, I was persuaded to fly as the passenger of a recently licensed pilot in his piper cub. Afterward, I was relieved to put my feet back on the ground.)
On my wall, I have arranged five (so far) air force-related items. The topmost item is a poster of the USAF Thunderbirds—the Air Force’s answer to the Navy’s Blue Angels. I acquired it when I visited Terri and Brian in the 1990s, while Terri was working in the PX at Nellis AFB, Nevada, the home base of the Thunderbirds. The poster depicts six jets in formation against a deep blue background with three cumulus clouds seemingly just above them.
Two of the items on the wall are admittedly bogus artifacts. To the left of the Thunderbird poster is a group photo of eight extras on a location of the movie The Right Stuff, including me on the far right in an orange flight suit. Did I mention that my big scene ended up on the cutting room floor?
Below the poster and the photo is an assembled and mounted version of the .22 AR 7 rifle that was originally designed for the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s by the Armalite group, although the Air Force never adopted it. A lightweight rifle, its parts can be broken down and fit into its own water-proof stock, which becomes a carrying case. The stock can then be stowed in a small knapsack. The notion that the AR 7 would be an ideal survival rifle for an air crew downed in the wilderness still makes sense to me even if the Air Force rejected it.
Below the rifle’s stock is a framed photo of Col. Martha McSally, USAF (ret.) and former U.S. senator from Arizona, who was the first American woman to fly in combat and command a fighter squadron. It shows a closeup of her in the cockpit, eyes flashing defiantly toward the camera.
Tacked up to the left of the rifle’s stock is a sheet of paper that, first, announces that this is the “Air Force Wall” but also demonstrates why this is not the “U.S.” Air Force wall, for it bears the 1941 poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a pilot with allegiances to three different countries, the U.S, U.K., and Canada, each of which lays claim to him and his poem as their own. Its majestic lines (several of which the poet admittedly borrowed and reworked from other’s poems) capture the near-spirituality of flight.
When I learned of the death of World War II hero and test pilot extraordinaire General Chuck Yeager, age ninety-seven, I posted the last few lines of this poem to his twitter account:
. . . I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent, lifting wind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
—Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
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