Wednesday, May 23, 2007
A Swashbuckling Pilot
I’m no longer alarmed to see men dangling out of helicopters or fighter planes banking. Over the years I’ve gotten used to the drone of jets. I barely glance up when a bomber flies in low over the Old Bath Road to land at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Since World War II, the base has made Brunswick not only a college town but a navy town as well.
About 20% of Brunswick school children are naval, adding much needed diversity. A disproportionate share of their parents volunteer in the classrooms, help out at library fundraisers or coach sports. You would think a family only there for three years wouldn’t bother, but navy people give more than they get. My daughter’s soccer coach didn’t even have children, yet he volunteered to coach when he wasn’t training the naval bomb dogs.
My husband grew up in a British naval family, enduring long absenses of his father at sea. Later he attended a naval prep school and was a cabin boy on a merchant navy ship. My father-in-law has an engaging memoir out on how British forces quelled a mutiny in Tanzania (then Tanganyika.) Back then he was the signal communications officer in the Royal Navy.
Over the years in Brunswick I’ve been friendly with a number of naval pilot wives. My husband goes off to do research in Japan for weeks and once months at a time, leaving me a single mom. The academic lifestyle before tenure feels almost military since the family has to follow the jobs. I find my naval friends understand the challenges of displacement, separation and reintegration. It’s hard to see your husband go but equally hard to reintegrate him back into your life.
For S.A.D., I’m drawing from these experiences to create my protagonist, a navy wife in a failing marriage. Her husband is having problems since his deployment to Iraq. He’s left active duty for reserve and a new career as a commercial pilot.
To understand my fictional characters, I turned to our friends the Bailey’s. My husband coached their daughter a few years ago, and the girls were reunited last fall on the same soccer team. During practice, Kristi told me about being a navy wife and suggested I ask her husband about being a commercial pilot on reserve.
Scott Bailey is the skipper, meaning he’s in charge of the 120-person reserve squadron at the base. These hardworking men and women have full time jobs in the private sector and come for reserve training during weekends and vacation time. Officially it’s only one weekend a month and two weeks a year (36 days minimum,) but in practice it tends to be 80-120 days a year. One man flies in from Detroit just for the weekend. Locals can put in night hours in the flight simulator after work. Either way, it’s a big time commitment to serve.
Scott gave me a private tour of the reserve unit on Saturday. I spent more than a few anxious minutes worrying about what to wear. Should I dress like the Queen inspecting the troops or for the cold, damp weather? Due to the climate and my limited wardrobe (no white gloves), I settled on a twin-set, pearls and cords.
The squadron leapt up to attention when we entered a room and were intrigued to have an author visitor. One young man in a leather flight jacket asked if there was going to be swashbuckling hero pilot. I replied, “of course.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him the poor guy would be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
There was a cavernous hanger full of P-3 Orions with torpedoes lined up like luggage. These large planes with their 13-man crew search for submarines and hidden forces. They are even used for anti-drug operations in the Caribbean. In Iraq they scout ahead of the troops for danger in the desert with their state of the art surveillance systems. The planes themselves are not so high-tech but 20-30 years old. The P3’s were originally used to ferry passengers and then to track Soviet subs. I felt like I’d walked onto a movie set from a different era.
It’s an era that is due to end. The base will shut in 2011. Scott’s squadron stopped flying two weeks ago, and the reserve unit will be deactivated in November. There are also three active duty squadrons on the base; there used to be more. As the activity winds down, the air station will still be used for plane repairs and refueling before it shuts.
The Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority will decide the future use of the base land. Many entities are competing for the space: Bowdoin College, a homeless shelter, the Conservation Commission and more than a dozen other worthy causes. I’m looking forward to finding the moose that lurk in the woods when some of the land is returned to the Town Commons.
The closure of the base will profoundly change the nature of Brunswick. It was part of the reason I wanted to write a novel about the time period. I may be a pacifist, but I have the utmost respect for those who are willing to risk their lives for our country and still funnel their peacetime energy into the community. I’m hoping some of these brave men and women will decide to settle in my town.