Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shared Moments

From Dad's pictures

Well, six weeks ago I stood up and gave one of those speeches no one wants to give - the eulogy for my dad's funeral.  After sharing thoughts about his life and his influence in mine, I ended with these words:

"September 11, 2010, the Air Force lost one of its' best retired officers.  
But my dad - he got the best promotion of his life."

In the weeks since then, it has been a slow acceptance process.  One of the therapists who worked with Dad in his final months shared with me the importance of allowing myself to go through the natural phases of grief.  Well, when you're a 22 year-old engineering student who is trying to chase down life and grab it by the tail, you aren't terribly interested in psychological mumbo-jumbo that doesn't fit into a math equation or engineering formula.  But I have found that this is no psychological nonsense.  She was exactly right.  You have to give yourself permission to deal with grief in your own way.  

I think I found part of the healing at, of all places, an air show.

My good friend Nate Cromer and I were in Georgia during fall break, and when we drove down to Atlanta, we saw a sign for an air show.  45 minutes later, we had entered Naval Air Station Atlanta and were on the perimeter road, 150 feet from the runway.  We arrived just as the Blue Angels took center stage.

This wasn't the first airshow I had been to.  But I will never forget it.

The first aircraft we saw were numbers 5 and 6 rolling down to the end of the runway, waiting for some signal before they took off.  As we were watching them run some control surface tests only 100 feet away from us, the fourship streaked by.

My dad spent his life in a mad love affair with the airplane.  He spent his entire professional career learning the engineering principles behind their design, flying them, fixing them when they broke, buying the Air Force more aircraft, and engineering completely new aircraft designs.  His passion for all things aeronautical was contagious.  I spent hundreds of hours over the 22 years I knew him discussing everything from stealth fighter aircraft, to the angle of the engine inlet on a 1960's F-104 and how it made for excellent supersonic performance, to putting an airliner engine in an attack aircraft and how bad an idea it was.

I don't know how to describe what went through my mind as I watched those blue and gold F-18s thunder down the runway in front of us and take to the sky.  Yes, I know they didn't belong to the right branch of the Department of Defense.  But hearing those eight GE engines come to life and fill the air with their thundering symphony was absolutely awe inspiring.  The combination of their raw, mind-blowing power, afterburners literally tearing the air to shreds, with the complete control of the pilot and aircraft over that power in precision flying - even though we are decades and now lifetimes apart, I knew I was sharing a moment with my dad.  He couldn't be there to watch every pound of those aluminum airframes take to the sky, so I watching and thrilling to the roar of the engines for two that day.

Regardless of how amazing those golden streets are, I know Dad was watching me that day and was probably a bit envious.  And regardless of the amazing technical specifications of angel wings, my dad would have gladly traded for a flight suit and strapped into the cockpit for one last flight.

High Flight by John Gillespie McGee, Jr. is a classic poem that we both memorized for Air Force training.  McGee was a British pilot during World War II who wrote this after a particularly incredible flight.  The last few lines are truly inspiring:

Up, up the long delirious burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark or even eagle flew,
And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Reached out my hand and touched the face of God.

That burning blue is missing one Air Force colonel.  Maybe some day I can strap into a cockpit and take his place.  But regardless of my future, it's comforting to know that my dad's flight through life took him past those windswept heights, through the untrespassed sanctity of space, beyond the confines of our math equations, space, and time, to a place where he can see God's face forever.


  1. Daniel~Seeing you in uniform at the podium that day, giving your eulogy message, I couldn't help but see a glimpse of your dad at 22, handsome aeronautical engineering major when I first met him. Your words touched all our hearts, reminding us that yes, we will grieve here on earth, then we'll all be together again one day. Thanks for your well-written tribute. Praying for you, with love, Aunt Sandi (PS, our mom, your grandma Charlotte, loved airshows more than anyone I knew. You s'pose she and your dad were enjoying those Blue Angels from the greatest vantage-point of all?)

  2. wow. i can totally picture you there. and i can picture dad there with you, too. to stand with you at an airshow and watch what you saw that day: i'm sure there aren't many things dad would have wished more to do before his life concluded than this. love you always! k.