My Father’s Aviator Sunglasses

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.

22 comments on “My Father’s Aviator Sunglasses

  1. radvaz says:

    Loved it, sent it to my dad – also an air-force pilot.

  2. agni says:

    wow.. some how this conjured up an image of Rajesh Khanna from Aradhana

  3. Bertie Vaz says:

    Samir, loved your beautifully worded reminiscence. Should you ever land in Bangalore, please do let me know – quite likely I may add to your memories – I have a strong hunch I knew your dad. I loved your recount about the Hawker Hunter, possibly the most impressive subsonic fighter in its time. Cheers. Bertie Vaz (Radhika’s dad)

  4. Uma Sen says:

    My darling Pummi’s image came alive. You know what he meant to me. God bless you for your sentiments. I am proud of you,
    Uma bua

  5. A very touching account of what it is to love one’s father. And to wear is sunglasses: “the dragongly / can’t quite land / on that blade of grass.” [Basho] This is a very good beginning of what you have it mind to write.

  6. […] My father, of course, was its most skilled driver. He drove with aplomb, nowhere better exemplified than in his mysterious ability to open a pack of cigarettes and light up with a match even as he continued down the highway or around a bend. But he was never reckless; indeed, when I felt compelled to ask him to drive faster, his answer was a laconic ‘This is fast enough.’ Perhaps it was all the ‘ol Fiat could handle. […]

  7. […] years ago, while talking to my father and some of his air force mates, I stumbled into a conversation about munitions.  There was talk […]

  8. […] of my mother. Why didn’t I write one for my father today? The short answer to that is that I’ve written some already–almost whenever I reference military aviation history for instance–and that one of my […]

  9. […] smoked my first cigarette in my teen years. My father smoked, as did many of the men–all Air Force pilots–that I idolized. There was glamour […]

  10. […] she had finished her MA, she agreed to her father’s suggestions that she meet a young man, a dashing air force pilot, who seemed like a good ‘match’ for her.  She liked her potential groom, even though […]

  11. […] because they want to partake of certain benefits and pleasures that only the military can provide. (My father and my brother joined an air force because they wanted to fly. And they didn’t want to fly […]

  12. […] attitude of mine is, in large part, due to the fact that I am a military brat, the offspring of an air force pilot, someone who took acute care to make sure his precious flying boots looked ready for action every […]

  13. […] I’ve written here, briefly, about the effect my father, a fighter pilot who fought in two wars…. That photograph encapsulates part of the reason why he was able to exercise such a hold over his sons’ imaginations. (All that is missing is the sound of the jet engines; their high-pitched start-up, their roar on ‘lighting up’, their flames trailing from their fiery exhausts.) It captures, statically, one of the many, many moments of scarcely plausible derring-do, flair, and elan I will always associate with my father. […]

  14. […] is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more […]

  15. […] the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this […]

  16. […] My father fought in the 1971 war as a pilot in the Indian Air Force; I’m glad he did. […]

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  18. […] from the air force, my family and I had always traveled by first-class on our train travels. My father was an air force officer, entitled to discount first-class travel for himself and his family; when the time to buy tickets […]

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