As a young boy I loved and admired many things about my father. Foremost among them was the fact that he was an Air Force pilot, a decorated one, one who had fought in two wars, capable of feats of valor and skill that boggled my juvenile mind. He seemed impossibly charismatic. How could he not, when he could pull off tricks like telling me one bright morning as he headed for work, ‘Watch the sky to the right of the house at 5PM; I’ll be in the second jet that comes over’, and then sure enough, showing up, as promised, at the right time, in the right place, in a screaming jet. (The Hawker Hunter appeared first like a wraith on the horizon, silent and lithe, over a grove of eucalyptus trees, and then suddenly, impossibly quick, it was flying past our house as I heard its Rolls-Royce engine ear-shatteringly announce its awesome presence.)
And an important part of the package, his mystique, his aura, were his sunglasses. Movie and rock stars may come and go, chiseled six-pack-packing models might continue to intimidate me, but the iconic handsome, strong man will always remain, for me, my father in a pair of sweat-soaked flying overalls, his crewcut visible, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses. That combination, so well-known, and so well-enshrined in the imagery associated with aviation, was one ever-present in my childhood, and it ensured an orientation of my aesthetic compass in a particular direction.
My father wore Ray-Bans, naturally. I still do not know how he procured them. But he must have spent a fair amount of his modest salary on his beloved pair, and he guarded them, like he guarded his long-playing record collection, with an intensity and attention to detail that was awe-inspiring. The constant cleaning with a soft cloth, the careful handling and placing back in their case, the refusal to let my brother and I ‘just try them on.’ (God forbid we ever disobeyed and sneaked in an illicit wearing session; I think we were meant to understand that they, like the wings he had pinned to his uniform, had to be earned.) They protected him from the three S’s he said, sun, sand and smoke; they protected the pilot’s most important aids; they deserved all the care and affection he showered on them.
As a teenager, I could scarcely wait to emulate my father’s look. I would only grow my hair out long, down past my shoulders, once I had finished my first graduate degree and started work. Till then, off and on, I experimented with getting the crewcut and sunglasses combination right. (This desperation was particularly manifest in my undergraduate days.) Somehow, it never worked. The haircut went awry; the glasses weren’t the right shape; I was too thin; I was too overweight. At some point, I gave up trying to wear aviator sunglasses. I switched to more conventional models, sporty types, Euro-trash styles, and then finally, sadly, to a pair of prescription sunglasses that do double duty now for mild myopia correction and shading my eyes from, yes, the three S’s. (I still try to sport military crew-cuts though I cannot find a barber who does them just right.)
The biggest problem, of course, with these attempts at paternal emulation, was that I wasn’t a pilot and I wasn’t my father. No matter how much I strutted and preened, I knew I was only a pale imitation of a man who could actually fly through the skies, all the while sitting on a top of a controlled explosion, a man who had felt the thunderous kick of a high-performance jet engine propel him down a runway and off into the air. That’s the missing piece, the one I was never able to place in the puzzle to acquire that look I sought when I peered into the nearest mirror.