There she was, dominating San Diego’s Harbor Drive the way she’d dominated the docks of Yokosuka 20 years earlier. I stood on the pier and stared at the wall of gray that seemed to soar all the way to the sun hanging in the clear March sky. Pipes tangled between portholes and catwalks. A line of red planes adorned a section below the enormous 41 painted in white. Above all this, the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze.
A conference had brought me here to San Diego, where my younger brother Nathan now lives, working as a probation officer. He took Friday off and we headed for the harbor. I could see her island superstructure from the street where we parked.
The man in the yellow CV-41 hat sat us down in a waiting area roped off at the base of the island. He explained how this was going to work. We were going to be climbing. “All the way up there,” he pointed. He told us how he flew Phantoms from this very flight deck, back in the early Seventies when Midway patrolled Yankee Station in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.
I could see his younger self, strapped into the cockpit of an F-4, climbing to avoid radar lock as the threat warning blared in his ears, waiting for the MiG on his six to stall out so he could drop in behind the Gomer and shoot a missile up his tailpipe. I didn’t ask how many kills he’d had.
We climbed a ladder, walked down narrow passageways, past doors with cryptic red labels, ran our hands over the steel “Ouija Board,” peered through portholes down at the water. The pilot lead our group through Primary Flight Control – a bay window overlooking the jets, the choppers, and the tourists.
Up another ladder, the bridge opened around us, windows on three sides. In the distance, USS Nimitz lay on the water like a skyscraper on its side.
“This is the captain’s chair.” Green velvet, worn through in patches, cracked vinyl armrests. “Nobody sits in the captain’s chair.”
I raise my hand. “Actually, I have.” Everybody turned to look at me.