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It has come again, that time of year in San Francisco. It promises to be crisp and blue, against my wish for heavy and house-high fog. The noise begins. Enormous noise. A noise that rattles my chest and gut more than my ears. There is no escaping it — not in loud rock and roll or in quick cups of cognac. I heard it today, forgetting the promise of the date. Friday. 15:36. First pass. Within seconds I understand, looking up at the normally sweet air. The Blue Angels are back.

Every year in October they come roaring into the Bay Area for three days — part of the Fleet Week celebration marking the goode olde days of WW II when San Francisco was a Navy Town. I myself brought a US Navy tug in under the Golden Gate Bridge many years ago, hauling an enormous barge north to Seattle from San Diego. We came in more modestly than the Blues but San Francisco loved us, in our tight white trou. We were sailors then, and young.

On Saturday afternoon, tomorrow, the day after the dress rehearsal I am deep-breathing through today, Marina Green in San Francisco will be packed like the beaches of Coney Island on the Fourth of July. There is usually barely green to be seen beneath the blankets and the sun-screened bodies. At the southern end of the Green two enormous day-time projection screens are often mounted to add the authenticity of TV to the drama everyone is waiting to see.

Last year it took me an hour to get from the west end of the Green to the Fort Mason end, usually a three-minute glide, decorated by dogs, runners, kites, sails. People were hanging out of windows, popping through sun-roofs, hurrying to cover the last patches of grass, perching on fenders and tailgates. Crowd-count: 3,000 + . A small group of friends has been turned down in years past for a Stop the Occupation rally on the Green, on the grounds of traffic and noise.

Interesting, I had thought: this is in San Francisco, the heart of the liberal west. In the crowd of several thousand waiting to watch in gape-jawed wonder there probably aren’t a dozen true militarists — those who know and celebrate the enormous fire-power of the jets. So what are they watching? What are they not seeing that I see so well?

Let me tell you about these airplanes. Since November of 1986 the Blue Angel aircraft have been Boeing F/A-18 Hornets [F means Fighter; A means Attack] replacing the McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawks — the same plane that John McCain bailed out of over North Vietnam, the 23rd time he had carried his payload there.

Here’s what the Hornets can carry:

“Mark 82, 83, and 84 low-drag iron bombs which weigh respectively 500, 1000, and 2000 pounds each…. AGM-62 Walleye I and Walleye I ER/DL electro-optical guided bombs … Hughes AGM-65 Maverick television-guided air-to-surface missile … the infrared-homing Maverick … the 468-lb Rockeye II anti-tank cluster bomb units or 610 lb BL-755 cluster bombs. … Four conventional unguided rocket launchers, Mark 76 and Mark 106 practice bombs and the SUU-20 practice bomb and rocket … two B57 or B61 tactical nuclear weapons…”

Shall I go into detail about what any of these items can do to the face of a five year old? I think not.

I first saw the Blue Angels as a boy, taken off to their perfomances at one military base or another. It was, it seemed to me, a way to celebrate your own –military fliers showing off for military families. It was a family thing. When it leaped outside that tough little bubble into being a wow-the-crowd and get-the-lads-to-the-recruiters air show it must have been about the time of the all-volunteer army. The lads couldn’t be forced anymore so they had to be mesmerized, given dreams of godlike flight.

What I see, that the Marina Greeners seem not to see, comes from later in my life. I was stationed on a US Navy supply ship off the coast of Vietnam from mid 1965 to mid 1967. The northern part of our run took us into the Gulf of Tonkin — Yankee Station– as it was called. There we sidled up alongside the Kitty Hawk and the Ranger, aircraft carriers, their escort destroyers, an occasional cruiser, and high-lined supplies to them, two-three-four-six winches working at a time while both multi-ton ships plowed through the wine-dark sea at 20 knots or so, within yards of disaster, for hours at a time. For young men it was an exhilarating test of nerves, skill and stamina. If that were all it was it would have been a good time to be alive. But there was more.

From the carriers roared the A-4 Skyhawks into the sky, heading West by North West, to Hanoi, to the villages around it, to the dikes, the dams, the rice paddies, the men, the women, the boys and girls the bones and bodies that would soon be flailed beneath the falling bombs. At night, at times, the whole coast would be lit by slow, parachute falling, incandescent phosphorous, the better to see the target, to release the bomb, to destroy the enemy, to ….

This is what I see. So what are the San Franciscans seeing? I think it is the grace, the skill, the courage.

Oh yes they were graceful, these steel birds, lifting and circling while others joined and then wheeling together to accomplish their mission. And oh yes, they were brave these boys. Some would never come back. Some would be beaten and tortured in prisons. I may have watched the flight from the Kitty Hawk on October 27th that took McCain to his prison cell. But what I saw, always , brought on by the synesthesia that is part of my genetic heritage, was the mayhem; what I heard as the roar of the jet engines vibrated through our chests were the terrified screams of those who would hear the whoomp whoomp of the bombs being dropped, who would smell the flesh of a sister burning, would see the face of a five year old boy torn from the body, whirling, whirling…

What they are not seeing are the burned dollars floating down through the bright blue day. 1,300 gallons of JP-5 jet fuel per hour per airplane. At a $1 per gallon that’s $5,200 dollars per hour.

What they are not seeing I see too well –when this odd Tourrete’s syndrome of the spirit explodes within me, not with the obscenities of the tongue but of human behavior — the sheer purpose of the power. The enormous thrumming through the cavities of the chest as they pass over head is understood by my body as the enormous explosive power of their payload, to be delivered, to destroy, to turn a child into muddy bloody rain…

What the families gathered on Marina Green don’t see, that I see too well, is available of course. War is documented. War is written of in fiction and in fact. War is filmed. War is known.

We watched Turtles Can Fly a few nights after the big show a few years ago, an Iraqi/Kurd/Iranian film that we had somehow missed if it had ever come to the big screen. We watched in the quiet of our living room where a person can suffer out-loud and say the magic mantra : “It’s just a movie, it’s just a movie.” Though it was not just a movie. The armless boy of the film, who sees the disasters coming to his family and friends days ahead of time, is a real armless boy. The fields full of empty, enormous, shells, were not made full in order to film this movie. They exist, they are really the playgrounds of the kids on the Iraqi-Turkish border. The mud was real; the mines the kids make their pennies locating, retrieving and selling, actually exist.

We know what these airplanes do. Or could know. It isn’t hard to grasp. Learning arithmetic is harder. Yet something flies off with that knowledge. Birds perhaps. Birds of fear, wonder, thrill, astonishment, grace…

By the way. I don’t like fire works either.

First posted Oct 6, 2006
Will Kirkland