The smell of jet fuel, the roar of an afterburner, and the wailing guitar riffs that run throughout Kenny Loggins’ epic hit Highway to the Danger Zone…. That’s Father’s Day to me. If you’ve ever seen the movie Top Gun, then you’ve seen my Dad. He was a catapult and arresting gear officer on the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) during filming. For those of you who don’t speak Navy, he was the yellow jersey on the flight deck that was in charge of coordinating the launch and landing of the aircraft. He is the one you see touch the deck and point towards the end, giving the final signal to the pilot and the catapult operator that the launch is a go. The pilot would kick in the afterburner, the steam-powered catapult throttles down the runway with the aircraft attached, and in a matter of seconds the pilot is thrown from a standstill to over 250 mph and he’s airborne. I’ve heard it described as the most exhilarating and terrifying roller coaster ride you can possibly imagine.
Dad didn’t start his career in the Navy on a ship, though….He started it in the air.
After graduating from the Naval Academy in Annapolis (Class of 76), Dad went on to flight school in Pensacola. He trained on several different aircraft and was eventually assigned to the P-3 as his platform. The P-3 is a four engine turbo prop similar to the C-130 of the Army and Air Force. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, it was the P-3 that was tasked with watching the waters of the North Atlantic and the Pacific for any sign of Russian incursion via their submarine fleet. Dad’s squadron dropped sonar buoys to listen for the tell-tale sounds of cavitations from the propellers of submerged subs as well as engine noise and other acoustic anomalies. He used to talk about doing passive sonar tests on the buoys they dropped in the Bering Sea and being able to hear humpback whales sing to each other in the Indian Ocean. Due to the intricate play of salinity, temperature, and pressure, if a whale descends to a certain depth in certain conditions and sings their song, the sound waves bounce through the ocean as if they were being transmitted on a fiber optic cable. In the right conditions, you can catch whale songs from the other side of the globe.
Dad lost his wings, though….or rather, I should say they were clipped. In his younger years, my father had a serious problem with alcohol. That problem grew out of control until it was controlling him. One night, after drinking heavily, he accidentally discharged a firearm in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, and the bullet went through the wall into the adjacent room. Dad went and knocked on the door, but couldn’t get an answer despite being able to hear the TV playing. Terrified that he might have accidentally injured or even killed his neighbor, Dad called the base police and reported the incident. The authorities came, forced entry into the next door unit, and found it empty with the television playing loudly.
That incident forced Dad into rehab in a failed attempt to convince the Navy to allow him to keep flying. They allowed Dad to stay in the Navy, which was in doubt for some time, and they even allowed him to keep his wings as a symbol of the service he’d given. But Dad’s days flying for the Navy were finished. In the end, after being taken out of the pilot’s seat, Dad was placed on the Enterprise. As part of his punishment, he came on the ship as the lowest ranking junior officer on board. After making aircraft commander, and an exemplary record as a pilot handling some of the most sensitive military technology of the day, he was literally in charge of cleaning bird droppings and FOD (Foreign Object Debris) from the flight deck to ensure the safety of the crews and the engines. A small piece of landing gear rubber might not seem like a hazard, but if it’s sucked into the engine intake of a roaring F-14 Tomcat, it can wreck the turbine and cause major damage. It was, literally, a shit job and I think it was really meant to drive him out of the Navy. What it became, though, was the clearest example of a philosophy that my father lived out every day.
Dad’s basic philosophy was simple and straightforward: Whatever job you’re given, you do it to the absolute best of your ability, even if you hate it. Do it harder and better than anyone else because regardless of what the job is, it’s yours and it’s a reflection of you.
Dad learned the jobs and the responsibilities of each person under his command. He trained himself to know what their jobs were and what he would be asking them to do. Then, he trained them to do each others’ jobs just in case someone became sick or injured. He didn’t want any gaps in his chain of command, limited as it was. Every day, Dad would walk the deck with his officers, looking for even the smallest piece of debris, the tiniest object that could pose a hazard. The flight deck on the Enterprise became the cleanest place on the ship. The pilots and flight crews marveled at the attention to detail and dedication of the clean-up crew. Under Dad’s leadership, his group became one of the highest performing crews on the ship.
After proving himself sweeping the flight deck, Dad moved up through the ranks of junior officers. By the time he left the ship, my father was one of the most respected and highest ranking junior officers with one of the most intense and desired positions on the ship. His dedication, hard work, and unbelievable drive to succeed had not gone unnoticed. It was these qualities that carried him through the rest of his life. Eventually, Dad left active duty service, flew for airlines for a brief period, tried his hand at running a horticulture business, and eventually wound up working at US Atlantic Command (USACOM) and Joint Forces Command (JF COM). He worked in one of the most secure locations on the planet handling some of the most sensitive information in the world. His opinion was listened to and respected, though not always followed, by Generals and Admirals at the highest levels of the US military.
My father passed away seven years ago this past February at fifty four years old. It was sudden, it was accidental, and it was the single event that has had the most profound impact on my life so far. I honestly don’t think a day has gone by since that I haven’t thought about something I’d like to tell him, a question I’d like to ask, or a problem that I need his advice to help me solve. It’s surreal at times to reach for the phone, and realize halfway to it that I can’t call him. That brief moment when the memory pops back into my head is always painful, even more than half a decade after the fact. There’s a deep and sad irony in that since there were times in the past when I would look at a call from him and shrug it off, sending him to voicemail because I was busy doing “more important” things. I look back at those “missed” calls now with a profound sense of sadness and loss. What I wouldn’t give to see his number one more time, to have the chance to take that call and hear his voice.
Father’s Day is tough. I have my own children now to look and they are a blessing beyond belief. There have been others in my life that have been father figures… my two grandfathers (both also passed), uncles, professors, friends…and one of the best Father-in-laws that any man could hope to have as part of his family. Each of these men has served as an example for me in some way throughout the years. They have been there for me to turn to, to lean on, and to learn from when I needed it. I’ve been blessed with an abundance of positive role models in my life, and none more so than my father. I try to live my life so that I live up to the amazing example that he set for me, and I hope that I have achieved some small measure of success.
My father was far from a perfect man. He was deeply flawed and, at times, deeply troubled by things in his past, mistakes he’d made, and by the stress and worry that we all go through as a part of life. Dad never shied away from those past mistakes, though, and instead used them to learn from, to grow, and to teach his children how not to make the same mistakes themselves (lessons that unfortunately didn’t always sink in). I took my father for granted when he was living, and I regret it now. I miss him and the quiet, thoughtful perspective that was uniquely his. I live every day trying with everything I have to live up to the example he set as a man, as a husband, and as a father.
I hope he would have been proud.
In honor and in memory of Joseph P. McAliley Sr. 1953-2008