April 14, 2008 - April 7, 2008
several presidential elections now, New Jersey has shown
up in the "blue" column, giving a strong edge to Clinton (twice), Gore,
Kerry at the polls, as well as two successive Democrat governors, a
Democrat state legislature, and a string of Democrat U.S. Senators.* In
the mathematics of the left, this means we're
solid with the rest of the post-modern, anti-capitalist peaceniks of
the northeast, demonstrating our dyed-in-the-wool liberalism
to a degree even Massachusetts can't match. (Remember Romney?) So, when
the lefties color New Jersey in on their political maps,
they must be looking deep into the Crayola box for that one special,
truly pure shade of cobalt blue which to them signifies near unanimous
immunity against the conservative retrovirus they're battling in the
red states. There shouldn't be any more jingoistic pro-military yahoos
in Jersey than in, say, Marin County, California, right?
Wrong. The lefties who view the states as monochromatically good (blue) or bad (red) would have been dismayed by what happened in Millville, New Jersey, over the weekend. Millville is the home of the annual Millville Air Show. You probably haven't heard of it because no MiG has ever burned down half the town in a display of state-of-the-art Russian technology. If you've noticed the graphic above, you might even be skeptical that luminaries like the Blue Angels would show up to perform their death-defying act at a small airport bordering the scrabbly wasteland called the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Especially after their tragic loss a few weeks ago. Isn't the whole world supposed to come to a standstill if a single 'boy' dies in a military-related event?
Two reasons. First, Millville Army Air Field (MAAF) was a
World War II training facility for P-47 fighter pilots. P-47s
were the A-10s
time, destroyers of trains, trucks, tanks, factories, artillery,
everything else that can be struck on the ground. That's why the
official name of the A-10
is, like the P-47, Thunderbolt.
The P-51 Mustang was more glamorous, perhaps, but the P-47 was the real
workhorse of American fighter planes:
The City of Millville, small as it is, has never forgotten the part it
played in World War II and works diligently to keep this heritage alive
in the MAAF
Museum. The annual air show is an essential part of that effort,
and it has become one of the biggest and best attended in the east.
Second, the Blue Angels don't quit performing when one of their team dies. What they do is dangerous. That's a given. Their aviators are not 'boys,' any more than our combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are. Hence, as scheduled, they performed in Millville on May 26 and 27, 2007. (And for one of their technical support team, the two-day event represented a homecoming.)
Happily, Mrs. InstaPunk and I were there to see it, and what we saw went far beyond what we could have expected. The experience of the Blue Angels was... well, I'll get to that, and it's worth waiting for, but the rest of the show was also well worth the 90-degree heat, the lack of shade, and the miles of walking involved.
Mrs. InstaPunk was most taken with the current military hardware on display, like the F/A-18s flown by U.S. Marines in Iraq and attended at the show by their young pilots.
Once I lost her in the crowd, but I used my head and went looking for
the biggest cluster of marine pilots. There she was, of course,
chatting with them about their latest tour in Iraq. But she wouldn't
let me take her picture with them because "all women look awful in this
kind of heat."
I liked the modern jets just fine, but I was enthralled to see so many
vintage WWII aircraft on display, including Stearman and Texan
fighter-trainers, a Corsair, a Thunderbolt, a Mustang, a flying boat I
couldn't identify, and a B-25 Mitchell bomber like the ones General
Doolittle flew to Tokyo.
And much more than these, of course, including veteran aircraft from
Korea, Vietnam, the Berlin Airlift, Desert Storm, and even Coast Guard
rescue craft. I can't possibly do them all justice here. The same goes
for the flying demonstrations. Words can't convey the shock to your
ears, and your visual sense of physics, of a B1-B or F-15 passing over
your head at a few hundred feet and then climbing to an altitude of
invisibility within a matter of seconds. Contemporary warplanes seem to
be merely the visible lead point of a tidal wave of sound, which unrolls
behind them like a dense sheet of thunder stretched so taut and
thin by the force of flight that the whole sky becomes a loudspeaker.
Like music, the roaring and screaming of this sky feels like the harmony of mathematics translated into sensory terms, so that the extraordinary power of the minds behind the intricately menacing machinery permeates your body from brain to bones. This singing human thunder contains in every moment the entire history of flight, without a word, from the blackboards filled with tiny computations to the daring of the Lindberghs and Yeagers, to the decades of dogfights between competing pilots, planes, nations, technologies, and times. Without thinking, you simply feel the life and death and danger and exhilaration of aerial war and the heroes who have taken to the skies in our defense. And you know, without the smallest calculation, that no one on earth, however arrogant or evil, wants to be on the receiving end of this magnificent flying shield of ours which can also deal out utter devastation in an instant. It's frightening, joyful, and awe-inspiring all at the same time, and the shifting shapes of the planes themselves, on the deck or vanishing into the ozone, are a continuous permutation of the dread side of beauty.
I'm not making this up. The organizers of the air show and the people who attend it are intensely aware of the simultaneity of history and the all encompassing present of warplanes climbing and diving without gunfire in the free skies of our home. After the F-15 assaulted our senses, a newly restored P-51 Mustang mesmerized all of us with the synchrony of its Rolls-Royce engine and its ability to turn and roll and charge in a phantom solo dogfight over the D-Day battlefield symbolized by the black stripes on its wings. While the pilot pushed the old bird on and on, big band music played, summoning that brave, desperate era before almost all present were born, when 19-year-olds fresh from college and ordinary civilian dreams clambered into machines not much longer than a good-sized family room and risked everything for their country after only a few short months of training. Maybe the youngest only stared up at it and smiled at its grace, but every face with a few lines on the brow looked up with appreciation and a kind of reverence: God bless this machine which did so much and brought so many safely home. There were hardcore bikers there, with their headscarves and bellies and boots (and a separate parking lot filled with choppers), and they, too, seemed as humble and grateful as children who've gotten the rarest of treats.
The P-51 made a second appearance -- a deeply moving one -- flying in wing-to-wing formation with the F-15 while the air show's PA system played Tommy Dorsey's "Sentimental Journey." This was the show's "Heritage Tribute," and we all watched in open-mouthed solemnity mixed with a curious sense of paradox. Yes, the F-15 was flying at a fraction of its top speed, but the two planes turned and rolled gracefully in tandem and so close together that one could feel the trust that had somehow been created between the professional Air Force pilot in the Eagle and the civilian amateur in the Mustang. It was a brief, beautifully executed time warp with a perfect musical accompaniment.
My own favorite flying performance of the day was a four-fer: the P-51 (again), a blue bent-wing Corsair, a silver P-47, and an olive P-40 Warhawk chasing one another in a great ellipse above the crowd. I had never seen the latter two actually flying, and the performance was not listed in the program, so their appearance was an unexpectedly dramatic delight. On each circuit the oldest of them, the P-40, lagged farther behind, and I remembered my dad's explanation of why his unit had their Warhawks replaced with Thunderbolts: "We were supposed to fly bomber escort, but we couldn't keep up with them... That's not a good thing." But the P-40 still belonged with the others, a smaller, slower, older brother of the more famous P-51, and it had its own unique place in history as the weapon of the daredevil Flying Tigers, legends in their own right in China and Burma.
I keep wanting to say more about the crowd, but there isn't much to say because they were not the bloated, intrusive, oblivious beast you encounter at the mall. The children were well behaved, closely tended by parents who understood the responsibility of bringing them into the presence of dangerous machinery on a very hot day. So there was no running, no pushing, no yelling, no cursing, no annoyance of any kind perpetrated by kids. Among the adults, there were no cross words, no dirty looks, no beer coolers, no shoulder bumps, no grumblings or signs of complaint (well, I did hear one guy get cross about paying $3 for a cupful of ice), and amazingly enough in a crowd this large and dispersed, no smoking. Only the trashcans communicated the stricture against lighting up in the vicinity of so much aircraft fuel, but I didn't see a single rebellious exception in four hours. It's amazing how a vast crowd of seemingly average Americans simply slides, lubricated by plenty of "excuse me's" and "that's okay's," into the background of an experience everyone is simply glad to attend. And so they are memorable for having been in no other way memorable. Sometimes it feels good to be an American, even in 2007.
But it was also punishingly hot. Three-and-a-half hours in, Mrs. InstaPunk, who's so Irish she's actually in danger of bursting into flame from contact with too much sun, confessed over funnelcake that she was probably going to expire of heat-stroke before the Blue Angels performed. Since that was the one thing she had been most determined to see, I knew it was serious and started steering her toward the exit. "We can watch the performance from the parking lot," I reassured her, "after we've resuscitated ourselves with a blast of air-conditioning in the car." Eventually she agreed, and we started the mile long hike to the car. We walked slowly, to preserve her strength, and finally attained the target objective under our own steam 15 minutes before the Blue Angels were slated to take off. (To be fair, her version is slightly different; she claims she had to drag my inert body only part of the way, and a kind Millville cop drove us the last three-quarter mile or so back to the car. But you know how women are. They always exaggerate.)
I confess to feeling disappointed. While Mrs. InstaPunk waited in the car, I looked past the hangar rooftops that obstructed our view of the airfield and listened for the PA system to announce the beginning of the show. The first indication I had of the Main Event was the unmistakeable chord set that launches "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones. This was followed by "Wild Thing" as the jet engines of the Blue Angels' F/A-18s leaped into life wth billows of smoke that could be seen even from our distant vantage point. By now I had detected that across the street from our lot -- even farther from the action than we were -- the Millville Eks Lodge seemed to have the full membership on hand, ensconced in lawn chairs on their porch as well as lawn chairs arrayed in the beds of innumerable pickup trucks. We were DEFINITELY going to be able to see something.
We heard the takeoff. It sounded like the naval guns beginning the bombardment of Normandy on D-Day. But still no sign of those blue and yellow machines we had seen lined up on the tarmac. "They can't do all their maneuvers ten feet off the runway," I offered lamely. "Of course not," said Mrs InstaPunk.
By now the sound was firing at us from, seemingly, all points of the compass. We, and a few others camped pathetically in the parking lot, craned our heads in every direction. Where were they? Where was the sound coming from?
Then I saw them. Four planes climbing straight up to the north. At our distance from them, there was no separation among the triangular shapes. Each wingpoint was welded to another, and the ascending formation was but a single unit through which you could see small triangles of sky. Behind us a shattering engine scream announced the arrival of a fifth plane, and a sixth, returning to the airfield from the south at very low altitude. They disappeared, and apparently parted company, behind the hangars that blocked our view west, but after their exhaust blasts diverged, I suddenly saw them through a wide gap between the two biggest hangars -- passing each other in opposing directions nearly six inches apart just a couple hundred feet over the runway. "There!" I shouted. "Jesus."
There were seven planes in all, but it seemed like more. We got the feeling of being at the epicenter of a vast virtual armillary sphere, around which various combinations of planes were orbiting in all possible directions, in impossibly tight formations, to the limit of the invisible tether that bound them, until the gravity of the center pulled them back together at the reckless velocity of a brand new universe. When they converged and flew past one another, the colliding onslaught of sound resembled Stephen Hawking's version of the Big Bang, an incipient mega-explosion that doesn't ever quite happen because you can never get closer than a trillionth of a second to the birth of physics.
"We can go now," announced Mrs. InstaPunk. "I've seen the Blue Angels."
So we started the car and began the drive back home.
That should be the end of it. But it isn't. When you leave the ballgame or the concert, you're almost immediately outside the action and whatever you hear of it is muted, diminished, and subsiding. When you leave the epicenter of a Blue Angels performance, you are merely plotting the direction of subsequent, incredibly immediate encounters.
We hadn't thought of that. But the residents of Millville and the surrounding rural areas had. We reached the heavily wooded main road that would lead us back home, and the first clearing we came to was lined on both sides by cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles, lawn chairs, blankets and dozens of people. We followed the direction of their upturned faces, and here came the Blue Angels again, four planes locked together as one, slowly rotating as they shivered the pine trees en route.
"Should I pull over?" I asked. "They've obviously got the perfect spot here to watch from. I don't want you to miss anything."
"No. Keep going. It's okay."
We still hadn't gotten it. Nobody had to go to the air show to experience the power and majesty of the Blue Angels. As we proceeded down what I'd always known as a back country road, every gap in the trees, every crossroad was jammed with cars, bikes, and people. Where there were houses, there were crowds, and the American flags flew, and the Blue Angels obliged by flying past and back again, showering us with waves of sound that rattled windows and rippled the wading pools.
Through one stretch of pure woods, we experienced a flyover so low that both of us ducked inside the car. The sound of the plane overhead was like a a yard of duct tape being ripped off your naked eardrums. Farther on, more people, more cars, more flags, the occasional, helplessly grinning state trooper guarding an intersection, and oddly unhurried traffic away from the show. I drove just under 50 and was astonished that an old biker who could have been Paul Teutle, Sr, made no effort to pass. When he finally turned off, I tossed him a wave, and he gave me a nod.
I'm sure that Hillary and Obama believe there's no price to be paid for supporting the troops by defunding the American military machine. Maybe they're right. All I know is that there's a vast unknown reservoir of American devotion to the bravest and most heroic aspects of the American military. Even here in the blue states, we retain the ability to be inspired, to be humble in the face of our national greatness, and a desire to live up to that greatness when the critical moment comes.
This weekend we saw the Blue Angels. More importantly, we got a glimpse of the spiritual impact heroes can have on ordinary Americans. It's not just the noise and speed. It's more than that. 'Shock and awe' isn't about machinery. It's about what a proud, free people can do when they finally set their minds to do it.
UPDATE. Thanks to our friends at ColdFury.com for the link. What a kick-ass name for a blog.
UPDATE 06/08. There are blue states, and then there are blue states. Today, Michelle Malkin has a report that San Franciscans are seeking to ban the Blue Angels from their city during Fleet Week. These people really do need to be stood up against a wall and shot.