On Father’s Day, like last year, I posted a photograph of my father on Facebook. This one shows him as a young pilot, standing in his flying overalls next to a fighter jet; he stands proud and erect, carrying his flying helmet tucked under his arm. Here it is: the man, his steed, the glamour of fighter pilots and flying, captured in vivid black and white. It is a photograph that can easily serve as the stuff of legend for a young boy–as it did for me.
I’ve written here, briefly, about the effect my father, a fighter pilot who fought in two wars, had on me. 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 élan I will always associate with my father.
Some part of the fighter pilot’s glamor and style was captured–for me–in the interactions these dashing swashbucklers had with each other, their comrades and mates in the air and on the ground. There was talk of flying, their hands and arms, sometimes with a beer mug held in one, tracing out aerial maneuvers with the expertness of a dancer executing a complex interpretive move; there were jokes and repartee; their camaraderie–a bond forged through training, close companionship, and a shared participation in an often dangerous activity–plain to see for all.
I saw many such meetings and interactions. One, in particular, stands out, its remembered details clear as ever.
In 1975, our family piled into our loyal car, a venerable Fiat 1100D, and set off on an epic road-trip up to Kashmir and back. We drove through plains and hills and valleys, up into the mountains and down again; we picnicked, we hiked, we walked, we swam; we stayed with family, we spent nights in ‘rest-houses’ and ‘forest bungalows’; and thanks to my father’s military service, we sometimes stayed in air force bases.
One fine day, we drove into an air force base in Avantipur (Jammu and Kashmir). We would take a brief break, eat brunch at the officer’s mess, and then carry on. We were met–for my father knew some of the base’s residents from the academy or from previous postings–by a bunch of pilots returned from their morning flying. The greetings were uproarious; there was vigorous handshaking and backslapping aplenty; many stories were quickly swapped–the roar of jets taking off and flying overhead provided the appropriate soundtrack. My mother, my brother, and I gazed upon the scene: crew-cut men in flying overalls, still sweat soaked from the cramped cockpits they had occupied a little while ago, wearing aviator’s sunglasses, talking about their trade. These initial interactions over, we made our way to the mess for food. There, sitting on its lawn in glorious sunshine, we watched fighter jets coming in to land; their wheels would kiss the tarmac, the nose would drop down, the colorful landing chute would flare as the mighty aircraft would continue its deceleration toward its eventual resting spot.
It has been forty years since; I still feel like a boy when I think about that day, that sunshine, those men.