The Big Noise and other flying things

The United States has been at war for 20 percent of its life as a nation, by some recent counts. As we all know, a militaristic nation that happens also to be a republic run (in theory) by the people who live in it must have a robust PR and marketing program in place for selling the populace on the idea of war and warmaking. Fellow Americans, I give you the Blue Angels — heartthrob flyboys bringing the world’s fastest, baddest air battle equipment right to the people for a demonstration of just how much other political entities don’t want to get on our grumpy side.

An expectant crowd.

I must admit, it works on me every time. I get a thrill watching the skies, my eyes flitting thither and yon in hopes of catching a glimpse of the blue and yellow arrowheads shooting low across the treetops of Seattle, forming up into pairs and quads and the occasional sextet. You have to scan, too, because if you wait until you hear them before looking up you’ll never see them. They’re that fast.

The purpose of these machines, or rather of their front-line active-duty cousins, is deadly violence against human beings. Let’s just say that out loud once and get it over with. Actually, their ideological purpose might be said to be the threat of violence, but if the threat doesn’t work, they’re fully capable of the follow-through. But we Americans are not unique in the maintenance of an air force, or of showing off our war equipment as entertainment (and please don’t get me wrong — I love America, still the safest and possibly most profitable place on earth to complain about the abuses of government). I was crossing a little bridge over one of the canals in Venice when the roar of jets echoed down into the narrow street and pummeled the cobbles, and a squadron of Italian fighters darted across the sliver of sky between the buildings trailing green, white and red smoke, a momentary unfurling of the Italian flag. Stalin had his missile parades and Hitler his giant revolving human swastika. Throughout history every state on the globe in possession of three sharp sticks has marched them through their public places to assure the citizenry and unnerve the neighbors.  

Hey! -- Oh....false alarm.

George Washington, who turned down an offer of unlimited executive power over the government of the United States two centuries before another George W. simply arrogated it, was adamant that this federation should not have a permanent professional soldiery, what they called in those days “a standing army”. It would tempt and then enable office-holders to abuse power and enslave the populace. Rather, he said, arms should be raised when arms were needed to defend our soil and keep despotic leaders in check. I love that about him. Of course, he didn’t realize that most Americans would come to prefer being enslaved to a kind of false idea of liberty anyway (“itsafreecountryIcandowhatIwant”), and if his warning had been heeded we’d be a French overseas department now, or New West Cornwall or Far Eastern Kamchatka or a colony of Germany or Japan, and there would never have been a 1967 Fastback Mustang or Gene Kelly or the Whee-Lo.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom many Americans long regarded as an uninformed president who golfed while the world went close to hell in a handbasket (even though we now understand he bore the weight of unspeakable secrets about what our intelligence apparatus was doing around the world in the 1950s), was the person who coined the phrase “military-industrial complex”. It debuted in a speech he gave on his way out of office by way of a warning for the future, after having seen the writing on the wall. 

There they are! Your tax dollars at work.

Still, the jets are amazing. My brother, who was a YOU-nited States Marine and of my admiration for whom I have elsewhere written, worked on similar machines as a mechanic at an air base in Southern California. He once described for me a morning when he paused in his wrench turning to lie back on the wing of — I think they were A-4s or F-15s (Ben?) — anyway he lay back on the wing and watched the last of the night’s stars fading into the deep blue of morning, imagining himself to be looking down on them from high above, as though he were on the underside of the wing and the stars were lights on a wide blue sea. Every time those metal birds took off, and every time they came home safe, he felt a deep satisfaction. My brother’s concern was the safety of his pilots. While I would have to cast my vote with Ike and the master of Mount Vernon in any debate about standing armies and the MIC, I can totally get behind my brother’s dedication to his mates.  

Our friend Marni brunched with us Sunday [update: Saturday, per her comment below], and after a big feast at Leena’s involving much syrup, and after Angela took Emilia home for a quiet nap, Mara and Marni and Marni’s golden retriever Darby and I all hastened down to the marsh-lined meadows behind the Center for Urban Horticulture to watch the Blue Angels rehearse the show they would be putting on the next day for the annual hydroplane races on Lake Washington, which have been a staple of Seattle’s Seafair celebration since the middle of the last century.

Ike's "unwarranted influence"? You be the judge, but hand me those binoculars first.

Kids love the Blue Angels as much as grownups do. My niece Joelle is one of the most articulate people under age 30 that I know, but I remember when she barely had words for what she needed to say. My folks lived for most of my life, and all of Joelle’s early life, in south Bellevue directly beneath one of the invisible skyborne curves followed by the Blue Angels every year as they performed their show. Consequently for several days every August, we’d now and again hear the ripping thunder of the jets as they approached and tore up the sky over the house. Usually this happened while my dad was enjoying a sandwhich at the dining room table or lining up a cut out in the shop, and you never saw a grown man move so fast in flannel. Dad had to see them. I had to see them. Their effect on us was a little like that of the blimp, only…well, they were terrifying sleek fighter planes, not a big friendly galoot of a lumbering gasbag. We heard the jets, we ran outside as though the house were about to be bombed.

When Joelle was old enough to be excited about jets, she was only about two. She called them “the Big Noise!” and she said this with a slight pause and intake of breath between Big and Noise. I don’t know if she remembers my dad, her Pop-Pop, holding her up in his arms while the jets whooshed overhead toward the lake. I remember the look of wonder and amazement on her face. I’m surprised she didn’t become a pilot.

You see them before you hear them...if you know where to look. Darby, Mara and Marni raise a quad of Blues from a nearby thicket.

We joined a little flock of watchers who had come with umbrellas, even a tent (?!) at a spot that gave us a wide sky to watch, and the Blues did not disappoint. We were at the northern end of their demonstration pattern and they flew by several times, singly and in various groupings. Against a grey sky, which is much brighter than blue sky, they are rather hard to look at. And the roar actually hurts your ears. Mara commented, “I’m big of seeing them, but I’m not big of the hearing.” In any case, she spent the intervals between appearances playing with Darby, and since I had promised her a stop at “the 31 Flavors” for an ice cream cone afterward, I got the feeling that she had begun to view this trip to the swamp as merely a side-show on the way to Baskin & Robbins. She asked about ice cream every five minutes.  

The meadows behind the Center for Urban Horticulture are wonderfully wild. Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) and a papery blue chicory (Cichorium intybus), both introduced species.

Not a native, but a cheery resident anyway.

I had my own distractions. It kept occuring to me what a lovely and restful place this meadow would be absent the ear-splitting din of America’s air power, which would be any other time but last week. It’s out of my way, but it would be swell to have the habit of walking daily among the grasses and wildflowers, the tall cottonwoods standing suspiciously close together in clumps, the ponds surrounded by shores of muck and ten-foot cattails. Where there are cattails there are usually also redwing blackbirds, though I didn’t notice any. But we saw a hawk sitting watchfully in a small dead tree in a patch of meadow that burned (or was burned) last year, and we observed two blue herons lifting up from a pond on their impossible wings. Canadian geese several times worried themselves into flight, taking a V formation that rhymed with that of the jets. Supposedly you could spot one hundred and fifty species of birds here.

The most interesting person I know working in her favorite medium: water.

We didn’t hang out long after the show. Darby wanted to play with the ducks, so we got her interested in the long trot back to the parking lot instead, and Marni let Mara hold the leash. The jets were gone. Ice cream was next. At least for another year, I’m a loyal fan of the Big Noise, an adherent of the military-industrial complex that our past presidents warned us about.


15 Responses to “The Big Noise and other flying things”

  1. 1 leatherhead109 August 10, 2010 at 20:03

    Whoa!!! You and I posted at the exact same time….that’ll make you spill your beer! Hey, I’m amazed you remember that story about me sitting and watching the stars. While I was gazing up (or looking down) I woke with a start from my daze as I suddenly found the mental trick to be too much and with a shout I fell off my perch in the act of trying not to fall into the sky. Does that make sense?

  2. 2 leatherhead109 August 10, 2010 at 20:12

    “not a big friendly galoot of a lumbering gasbag.” I love that.

  3. 5 Marni August 11, 2010 at 09:37

    It was a fun day, although it was Saturday! I still can’t believe I had ice cream after the gallons of syrup I consumed at brunch. Meeting Emilia was a real treat, and seeing and spending time with all of you (especially the charming and by now coated-in-dog-kisses Mara) was the best way I could have spent the day. I will actually be reversing our trek later this afternoon when we walk home from Laurelhurst after meeting up with a friend and her grandson/baby- strolling through the preserve on a beautiful sunny day will be, I think, rather enchanting!

  4. 7 jstwndrng August 11, 2010 at 10:10

    My brother commented thrice above but neglected to fill in the hole I queried him about in the post. I pestered him by email and he said this:

    Yes, A-4’s. You probably remember those from the “Balcony Years”. Those were the snub nosed little hot rods that dominated Seafair halftime for our entire youth. I was priveledged to meet the Blue’s while in the Corps and as a Naval cadet come to think of it, and I watched them from one of my own aircraft one day. It never lost its touch. Actually, the pilots were a bunch of ….”Yo Baby Yo!” Types. Really didn’t like them much. Our own pilots were much more down to earth.

    hə! “down to earth”.

  5. 8 Louis August 12, 2010 at 08:45

    You really touched me with this one, Matt. Thank you. I love the Blue Angels. I watched them on the internet last Sunday, knowing that my dad and my nephews were watching in the front yard of my parents’ house. We used to attend the Everett airshow every year when we were kids. Not only did the Blue Angels perform, but also the USAF Thunderbirds. I was in flight demonstration team heaven. The jets from Italy you saw were most likely the Frecce Tricolori (Tri-Color Arrows). Canada has the Snowbirds, the UK has the Red Arrows, and in Brazil there is the Esquadrilha da Fumaça (SMOKE SQUADRON – love that name!) But having grown up a Navy brat, the Blue Angels will always be numero uno. It bothers me to read every August complaints about “machines of war” flying around town. I understand the F-18s are war machines. But what the Blue Angels do is entertainment. And they still inspire.

    Questions: The A-4 – is that also known as the sabre jet?

    What´s a Whee-Lo?

    • 9 jstwndrng August 12, 2010 at 09:48

      Hi Lou,
      I recall your post about Seafair and the Blue Angels from last year and the photos you put up and what it all means to you. Hey, my dad used to take us kids up to Paine Field every year, too! And every year they’d start announcing midway through the show that some car was blocking the firelane (a ruse every time), and at the end of the show they’d hoist the “offending” car with one of those dual-prop army helicopters I don’t know the name of, and they’d drop it from several hundred feet. One time they dropped a bus.

      Being woefully self-absorbed and ill-read, I don’t see the yearly complaints you speak of, but I can imagine heated and humorless harangues from Seattleites on this topic. I attempted in my own observations to avoid becoming Mr. NO-FUN Pants, while acknowledging at the same time that we as a society are fully complicit in perpetuating a culture of war even though we think of ourselves as peace-bringers, and that I myself am conflicted as a person opposed to aggression and yet adoring of warplanes, especially old bombers, go figure. This is exactly the kind of thing I want my daughter(s!) to know about me someday, that I wrestled with these things. I know you do, too, Lou, and you have an ability to more readily separate the good out and celebrate it. I try hard to do that, but you do it as part of your nature. That’s one of the (many) things I value about you. After all, so much of what I grouse about is not really changeable, so can we just enjoy the good side of things? I hear you. And you’re right.

      The sabre-jet I think was that Korean War-era jet (F-86, says Wikipedia) that looked like it had its mouth open saying “oh!” (I think the intake was there on the nose). The A-4 is smaller, prettier, sharper, like a little dart. According to Wikipedia, the A-4 is called the Skyhawk.

      The Whee-Lo! You know, the amazing toy! Two looped metal rods with a handle and a little wheel with magnetic hubs rolling along it? Surely you remember the Whee-Lo. I almost spelled it Wheel-O, which would have been incorrect but might have jogged your memory.

  6. 10 Kip August 12, 2010 at 13:47

    I come late to the post, but gotta say, sounds like agreat day! Yesterday was actually a cloudy, rainy Seattle day in Boise, and it made me long for home! Do I remember correctly Matt, that one year we watched the Blue Angels from the porch of a relaive of yours? I have a memory of it….just can’t remember some of the particulars. My folks spent a year or 3 in Broadmore, and every year, the planes would dip a wing right over the house for a turn, and I swear I could reach up and touch the plane!

    A few miles from our house is the Boise Airport, also home to Gowen Field, and the Idaho Air Guard. 40 some odd miles to the southeast is Mountain Home Air Force Base. Needless to say, there are many aircraft in our skies, both of the fixed wing and whirly-bird types. They are loud, fly low over the houses, and many complain of that. But I have to say that my eyes are glues to the skies when they go by, any time of day ornight. And while they are indeed weapons of war, they are spellbinding to watch. And I am also glad they have a place to practice they’re skills, because no matter what, they do need to be properly prepaired. And just to have the ability to pilot one of those aircraft…I can’t even play video games!

    I LOVED my Wee-Lo! Hours of fun for the whole Family!!!!!

    • 11 jstwndrng August 12, 2010 at 13:58

      Every year my family went over to my uncle’s mansion overlooking the racecourse (right above the original pits). You recall correctly…one year in high school you and I and and my cousin Karen and Jeff and I think Jeff’s girlfriend Terri all went over. That was the day my dad’s Galaxy 500 overheated as we went around the north end of the lake on the way home.

  7. 12 Kip August 12, 2010 at 16:26

    Well, looks like I got a memory right! Speaking of cars, just last night my brothr and I were talking about the Buick Special. That led my mind to two other cars: My grandfather’s 70-something Chevelle, and the Ford Galaxy 500. Those were the cars…those were the days! I am going to suppose that you went right the way around th lake, not over it, due to much traffic. Close?

  8. 13 leatherhead109 August 12, 2010 at 18:00

    Thus the reference to the “Balcony Years”. Among the most loved memories of my childhood. I had a vivid flashback today actually as Jack and I accompanied my neighbor Gary, over to “Chuck’s”. We had gone there to have a whack and reloading one of my rifles rather hard to find ammo-unition. “Chuck” is a local gunsmith (some would say THE Smithy of Gunsmiths). He’s a jolly old sole and his “shop” is a pleasant little place, has been there since 1960 and has all the ingredients to make me long for Dad’s shop, or Uncle Jim’s place. Dry, but smelling of old things. Creaking floor, just getting into the place itself is like entry into a cave through a tank hatch. The smell of it smacked of my childhood among those old men that make everything seem all right in the world. Jack was mezemerized by all the treasures in there. Bayonets, muskets, old barrels, wood and metal working equipment, stacks and stacks of parts and springs and clips and stocks and …

  9. 14 jstwndrng August 12, 2010 at 21:21

    @Kip, yes, we probably went north because the bridge was snarled up, but it may also have been because I loved driving that old battleship and I had my posse with me. Ben has noted above that his reference to the Balcony Years meant indeed the balcony at my uncle’s place that you are remembering, which we almost never ever went out on except once a year on race day.

    Ah, the Special. Cruiser ventiports. That was a wonderful car.

    @Ben, Chuck sounds like the kind of guy Joseph Mitchell would have interviewed to good purpose. Or maybe John McPhee. I can picture the place and I know that dry-old smell you mentioned. I only went down in Uncle Jim’s basement once, I think, when I was small. Dad and he were looking at piano parts he had down there, I believe, the memory is hazy. I don’t know exactly how deep in the house this was, because as you know, there was the “Seafair” balcony on the top floor (minus the attic, mind), and there was another balcony off the living room on the main floor that I don’t think I ever stepped out on, and I remember the german shepherds were kept on yet another balcony, which must have been the next floor down, open on the water side yet build into the hill at the street side. I remember seeing the dogs down there. So where was this basement? Must have been one floor EVEN LOWER, hard as that is to believe, because Jim once told Dad that he found the entrance to a bootlegger’s tunnel leading from the basement out toward the lakeshore. This had to have been under the dog porch because it would have been hidden in a wall on the east side, the water side, and none of the other three floors had walls into earth on that side. I remember being chagrinned that no one had told me about this tunnel earlier. Apparently it had caved in a short ways in. I imagine Jim sealed it up. I still have wonderful dreams about that house. Remind me to ask Dad about it again.

  10. 15 leatherhead109 August 13, 2010 at 07:44


    I believe we spent an entire day during Seafair (when the cousins were living there), hunting down the tunnel. I remember you and Brian really going at it trying to find this hidden passage and Diana and I were quite frankly scared to be left alone behind you. Now of course, the Wiley old Uncle wouldn’t let on to whether we had found something or not.
    I think the basement room you refer to that I recall was accessed normally through a small door under the stair in the foyer. That would be to the right as you walked in the front door. It had a steep stair and it seems to me the basement was very compartmentalized so that the space felt small (especially with grand piano’s down there. There must have been the third porch and therefore access for paino’s.
    Land sake’s…the memories.

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