The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels were in town this weekend for Seattle’s annual Seafair celebration. Each year, they perform Saturday and Sunday over Lake Washington and we have made it a tradition to see them. From relaxing at a park on Mercer Island to cradling an infant on the I-90 freeway to sunbathing in boats in the middle of Lake Washington, over the years we’ve seen them in a number of different places for the awe-inspiring, breathtaking action. For the past three years we’ve headed down to Boeing Field in Seattle, which is where they make their home during Seafair week and start and end the show.
It feels like a behind-the-scenes, up-close and personal experience at Boeing Field. We watch the flight crew perform the pre-flight check. The pilots arrive in a white Chevy van (which is hard for me to get my brain around. I don’t know if I expect them to jump out of a helicopter or be escorted by a motorcade, but a white van just doesn’t seem to quite fit for the arrival of these elite pilots.) We watch them line-up and proceed to their respective jets, each pilot making a right turn and saluting as he begins the climb up the ladder to the cockpit. Each keeps his left arm perfectly straight at his side as the right hand grips the arm rail for the ascent. They settle in and don bright yellow helmets. The crowd cheers wildly and expectantly as the engines fire up, blowing a ceremonious gust of white smoke. Slowly they begin their drive-bys; waving, making peace signs and doing raise-the-roof gestures. There is nothing quite like the anticipation and excitement of seeing this detailed pre-show routine. It is rich in tradition, ritual and prestige. As I take it in, Huckster is all around me. A Navy guy through-and-through, I’d call him and my mom every year during the show and shout “Listen!” holding up my cell phone, as the FA-18 Hornet engines roared overhead. We didn’t carry on a conversation. I just wanted them to be a part of it.
This year my husband, boys and I watch the show off in the distance and try to find some relief from the 90-degree heat. We eagerly await the occasional fly-bys, marveling at the thunderous sound, waving and yelling as they soar above us. Soon, they return to a warm welcome and many of us stand behind the barricade waiting for the pilots to come over, greet onlookers and sign autographs. My boys decide they can’t take the heat any longer, so they head back to the car to relax with a cold drink and AC.
I join the crowd of waiting spectators. I hang back, behind children and families. I watch as the pilot of Blue Angel #5, C.J. Simonsen chats it up with kids, asking their names and posing for photos. He signs a yellow replica helmet and a cast. As the sweat drips through my hair and down my back, I think for a second about bolting, not wanting to come off as some freaky, perspiring forty-something groupie. But I wait. I am riveted. It’s not about the autograph. I think about what I’m going to say, knowing it will be the same thing I said to the pilot last year. I want to tell him how my dad had some of the best moments of his life in the Navy. I want to tell him how he could recall with picture-perfect detail the experiences and landings aboard the aircraft carrier. I want to tell him how he’d sit in his chair in the corner of the living room when I’d call, moved to tears, listening to the booming engines on the speakerphone. I want to tell him that this great Navy man is no longer on earth.
Instead, as he signs my glossy, full-color brochure, I simply say —with hopefully all the pride that Huckster embodied—”My dad was on the USS Kearsarge.”
He looks up into my eyes, grinning, and says “Awesome!”
“Thank you for today,” I add.
I take my brochure and start sprinting joyfully back to my waiting family, feeling that in some teeny way, by sharing one simple sentence, Huckster’s legacy continues to live on.