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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.