Where Everybody Knows Your Name

People sometimes ask me if I miss flying. After all, who wouldn’t want to zip around at supersonic speeds and cloud-surf over the world’s oceans. I smile as I struggle to answer. What I should say is, “sure do!” or “only when I think about it,” which are boilerplate answers to the question. Another common question is, “what is it like to fly a fighter jet?” and as I’ve written before, how do you answer that one in a sentence or two? But back to the first question: Yes, I say, then add, as we aviators tend to do, the specifics. What I miss is naval aviation, the challenge and the camaraderie.

My wife and I were privileged to attend a Navy Change-of-Command and retirement ceremony last week in San Diego, where my friend VADM Mike “Shoe” Shoemaker relinquished command of Naval Air Forces to my friend VADM Chip “Bullet” Miller. It was held aboard Naval Air Station North Island, technically called Naval Base Coronado, but I hope the colloquial North Island lives on forever. It was held in a spacious aircraft hangar on the flight line not far from the I-Bar…more on that later.

We arrived the night before and saw friends. Actually we saw friends on the plane, friends of over 30 years, and there was not a moment during the next three days and nights that we were not among the types of friends you “grew up” with. We’ve been to each others homes, we’ve put each other up in our homes, and watched our kids play together and form their own life-long bonds. Some children we’ve known since infancy and pre-school attended, and some children were in dress blue uniforms.

On Thursday morning we rose early, and with the lobby mobbed with friends we hadn’t seen in some time there was no time to grab a bite to eat and still make the ceremony. Like Tailhook conventions, you make small-talk for 15-30 seconds before time or a coffee-line pulls you away. However, sometimes we had longer to really catch up, to understand what each other is doing, and to convey how much we mean to each other.

In this aviation community it is custom to begin these ceremonies at 1000am on a Thursday. Knowing it would be well attended we arrived early, to park the car, to find the assigned seats, and to socialize. I drove up with my parking pass displayed and identified myself. The Chief monitoring the parking lot asked me if I was family; well, I said, we were squadronmates and roommates. Close enough sir, park over there with the family!

We entered – joining a long line of friends – and got our seating assignment as the Navy Band played the familiar and stirring National Emblem. Row upon row – upon row – of seats were arranged with the dias platform at the hangar bay entrance, with naval static-display aircraft parked outside on the flight line. Business suits for men, most of us retired, and semi-formal business attire for the ladies, a smaller number also retired. It is our American social custom to shake hands, even after decades apart from someone you spent months living with. Our eyes meet and we move toward one another, shipmates who remember each other in our 20’s, squeezing one another’s hand in a manly grasp – and sometimes bringing that in for a closer hug signifying a shared experience and kinship. The ladies radiate dazzling smiles and share warm embraces – with everyone. It is like a family reunion. It is family, and we compliment each other and remark about the kids and the latest Facebook update until others grab our elbows as the process is repeated.

The ceremony begins on time, to the second. We stand as the official party is “piped” aboard through rows of side-boys as active duty salute. As Ruffles and Flourishes sounded I watched my friends in their Full Dress Blue regalia with pride, recalling flight school, and fun FA-18 hops over North Florida, and backyard bar-b-q’s with the kids running around. On the dias I know all the admirals, three of whom I have personal relationships.

The colors are paraded. All stand – not standing is unthinkable – and once the flag approaches we place our hands over our hearts while those in uniform salute. All one thousand guests are at attention, if they served in uniform or not, and all are still as the soloist sings the words to the song we all know by heart. During the last stanza I saw them over Point Loma, six dots signifying the familiar Delta formation, smoke-ON, and as the anthem ended the sound of 12 F404 engines increased to booming roar as the Blue Angels – their Hornets hook-down to make a statement – thundered over the hangar at 200 feet. Cool.

These ceremonies are pretty much cookie-cutter: A solemn invocation, guest speaker speech, medal award (Distinguished Service) to the outgoing commander followed by his farewell speech, the actual change of command, speech (short) by the incoming commander, benediction. This one was also a retirement for Shoe, hanging it up after almost 36 years of commissioned service. An American flag he had flown over his two carrier flagships and Naval Air Forces HQ was passed up the line as a poem was read. After it was placed in his hands, Shoe gave it to his mother in the front row, herself the widow of a veteran buried at Arlington. Moments later, with the crowd on their feet, Shoe, Peggy, and their girls were “piped over the side” between the side boys in naval tradition as all saluted Shoe, “going ashore” for the last time. At the end Peggy let out a whoop. Freedom!

There is a time in each ceremony, when the outgoing and incoming commander face each other, and using the words used on ship bridges as watches are changed every four hours all over the world, transfer authority and responsibility from one to the other. Shoe told Bullet he was prepared to be relieved as Commander, Naval Air Forces. Bullet saluted and said, “I relieve you, sir!” and Shoe answered, “I stand relieved.” At that moment Bullet took the conn, or in aviation terms, the lead, and both reported to Fleet Commander “Notso” that one was relieved and the other had assumed command and commensurate responsibilities even I can only imagine. In front of the assembled staff and 1,000 witnesses there was no doubt. We love our change-of-command ceremonies, and they are effective.

Once dismissed we fall into more handshakes and embraces with all around us, and congratulating Shoe and Bullet after standing in long lines to do so. Outside on the sun-splashed flight line the “petting zoo” of fleet aircraft await guests to get a closer look, and a catering tent forms a line that begins near the hangar. The legends mingle about, current rising stars chat in groups, and we see friends and shipmates we note to find later; sadly, I missed chances with a few in the giant crowd.

That afternoon we gathered on the rooftop with bottles and cups – not that we are glorifying anything, mind you – and reflected on the ceremony and caught up with those we had not yet had a chance. A loud, booming, deafening sound erupted next to us and soon a JSF appeared behind our building as it took off to the west. It turned hard left and departed to the south along Point Loma; several in our group knew the pilot flying it. That afternoon two Super Hornets came into the break and landed, with us has-beens watching the entire time. The next morning I ran into one of the lieutenants that flew one, one whom I’ve met before.

The next two days and nights were filled with social events; a huge reception at the Island Club, golf (Friday and Saturday, with a few legit par holes!), side trips to Coronado and a gathering at the famous I-Bar. Legend has it you’ll always see an old friend there each time you walk in, and I’ve found that to be pretty much true over the years I’ve visited, in a flight suit or civvies. Like the weekend, it is where everybody knows your name. (Don’t touch the model airplanes, and don’t put your phone on the bar!)

We went to mass Sunday morning to give thanks before lugging our stuff to Lindbergh for the flight home. Just to be there at such an important ceremony, to see so many of our closest friends, to enjoy the balmy SoCal sun while the rest of the US was scraping ice off windshields (we should live here!), and spend time smiling and laughing and enjoying each other’s familiar company – it is priceless.

While the ages of those attending ranged from mid-90’s to teen, most of our group that served with Shoe and Bullet are around 60, plus or minus. The ladies are aging gracefully and us guys are grayer, heavier, balder…but all of us wiser, knowing how special moments like these are. We look forward to the next time, to solve the world’s problems, to tell the same and sometimes new sea stories, to get the latest on the kids, and inquire about elderly parents who need our care now. To laugh and smile.

The challenge of naval aviation such as leading a complex airborne evolution is long past. Thankfully, my memories are rich. But the camaraderie I experienced remains, and we look forward to the next gathering in the coming months, or years, among familiar friends, as familiar as family, and not taking any of it for granted.

My How-to of Independent Publishing

So, you want to publish a book. Given that you’ve written one, that is an admirable goal. You should share with friends and family – and thousands of strangers – what you’ve created. Why not? We are called to share our talents, and to help where we can.

In recent months several people have asked me about the process of book publishing in today’s new normal of ebooks, print-on-demand, and audiobooks. After rejections from what I’ll call “New York,” I found – through my network – independent publishing. As I wrote in a previous blog post, the dominant e-reader Kindle has revolutionized publishing like nothing since the Gutenberg Press, and fellow author and veteran Jeff Edwards of Braveship Books, who is an award-winning writer of remarkable success, walked me through it. Here are the steps I’ve used in my journey as an author/entrepreneur.

  1. Write, re-write, repeat     Whew! You finished your book. Send it to the editor?…not so fast. Print it out – on paper – then take a pen…and make corrections. You’ll see things, and fix things, and re-word things, and correcting it out on paper allows for “fresh” eyes and quick edits/notes. Stephen King gives himself several weeks after writing a passage before coming back to it and editing in this way. Cut, sand, and polish, polish, polish, polish. Between rejection letters I did this for months and it paid off. James Webb said he re-wrote Fields of Fire six times before it was ready, and knew he had a fine piece of literature when he did. You need to have that feeling too, to know deep down that, “this is good.”
  2. Collaborative Editing     My superb editor, Linda Wasserman, would edit a chunk of the manuscript (say 2,000 words), send me the edited chunk via email, and then we’d meet on the phone to discuss the edits. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Linda challenges me to justify my word choices, and often has me read a sentence or paragraph. This is a fascinating process, and it allows us – yes, us – to make a good passage better. Linda suggests, but she also allows me the author to have 51% of the vote when we have disagreements. There is content editing (storyline, prose) and copy editing (spelling, punctuation). Both are important, and Linda does both, she’s a gem. Linda compiles all the edits into a working rough…this process takes many months (over six months) of detailed effort, but worth every moment spent on it. (And by the way, it’s words. People ask me how many pages my novels run. Pages are font and format dependent. A word, on the other hand, is a word.)
  3. Beta Readers     We remember the teachers (instructors, flight evaluators) who pushed us. You want your beta readers, readers who are going to give you a “sanity check,” to push you. While there are always exceptions, your loving family members are probably not good beta readers. You want friends/professional associates you can trust to give you that constructive criticism we all crave. In my techno-thriller genre – with readers who cannot wait to catch errors – I need the beta reader to catch them first, but also to suggest alternate story outcomes and question the techno-details. Editor or beta reader – which comes first? Not critical, and they can occur simultaneously. Once edited, if a beta reader (or me) makes major changes, I’ll use my judgment if the changes need Linda’s eye. For the editor and beta reader, my job is to get them the best possible manuscript from which to work. Polish, polish, polish.
  4. Cover Design     We’re in the home stretch now, about a month from publishing, and the book needs a cover. This is also the subject of a previous blog post, but suffice to say I used 99Designs. I held a “contest” to solicit cover designers from around the world, giving them a basic run-down of my novel and general ideas for a cover. Off they go, and they design covers for Kindle, Trade-paperback, and audiobook; all different. They are pros, and they know to allow space for the ISBN bar code, the spine, back-cover metadata, etc. 99Designs allows you – and people you invite – to rate covers and work direct with the designers for changes. Another fascinating process, and in the end you declare a winner, 99Designs releases the prize money to the designer and you, the author, have rights to the cover you purchased. This process took me 2-3 weeks each time…the final decision is tough.
  5. Metadata     Of warfare, Clausewitz said “…everything is simple, but even the simplest things are difficult.” Metadata is the “stuff” in the book that is not part of the manuscript. The author bio and back cover blurb are two examples. (The acknowledgments section is part of the manuscript.) Like everything, this needs some thought to make the most of each word in this precious space. Have them ready for when you enter them; more on that in a minute.
  6. Formatting     There are two types of formatting; PDF and MOBI. A trade-paperback, an actual book you can hold, uses the PDF format. Most of you could plow through that, right? Well, a professionally done book requires the right number of pages, and logical page breaks, etc. Your first page needs to be blank – because the inside front cover is blank, right? For Kindle, a MOBI zip-drive is required. Jeff and Braveship do this for me, after we’ve both given the manuscript a final scrub, and when complete I have the formatted files.
  7. Uploading into CreateSpace and KDP     This takes me about 45-60 minutes each on the CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing accounts I created. Both methods have a step-by-step process that guides the author. Enter your ISBN, enter your genre, enter your cover. For your trade paperback, do you prefer white or cream colored paper? I guessed “white?” until Jeff said no – cream is easier to read from. Cream it is, no argument. You enter your metadata and answer various questions in the process until you come to the last box: Publish your book. Once you click on that, it is on Kindle or available on CreateSpace within 24 hours, and all of this is at no cost to you. For CreateSpace, they ask if you want an electronic or trade-paperback copy to give one last look. I choose the hard copy which shows up at my door days later. Mistakes that are found are corrected, reformatted, and re-entered. Once complete, the book is “live” with a publishing date.
  8. Promoting     After I published Raven One, Linda told me I just signed up for a new “job.” For those of us who approach this from a professional standpoint, promoting and marketing is an effort and there are many great books and resources on how to do this. Perhaps a future blog post, and I’m still learning. Frankly, it was through my promotion efforts that Tantor Media found me and offered an audiobook contract. Before that of course, the manuscript was written, cut, sanded, and polished in careful detail.

For less than five dollars people can have my novels delivered to their Kindle App, and for not much more to their Audible App. Less than 5% of my readers prefer a good old-fashioned book to hold, and CreateSpace (which has several print factories in the United States) prints one book (or whatever ordered) and ships it to the reader’s door. The photo below is of me three years ago with the proof copy of Raven One, which now has a new and improved cover. Thousands of hours of effort went into that, and in my own “new normal” of diverse business endeavors the effort is well worth it. If you’ve got a book in you, publish it. It has never been easier.


The Christmas Bombing, and Courage

Over the weekend I visited a homeless shelter. Not to call attention to that, but it is related to this story.

I brought some copies of my books to donate, and, not sure how, went to the check-in window to talk with whoever was working it.

A volunteer, an older man – gray, glasses, moustache (guess that’s me without the moustache) – was there and I first asked him where I could get a cup of coffee. Nice as he could be he directed me around the corner to come in and help myself. I then presented my books to donate to the “library” which was little more that a wooden box outside by a shack. He looked at the covers. “You a pilot?” he asked. Yes, I said, back in the day, and my novels are about today’s aviators. How about you, I asked him.

“Yeah, Vietnam. C-7’s at first.”

Yes, the Caribou, I said.

“Yes,” he said, surprised that anyone would know that (those of you who know me well are smiling). He then added, “Then I went to B-52’s.”

I was impressed and said “wow” or something like that.

“Yeah, I was in Linebacker II.”

Wow I said, with my eyes big and full of respect. The “Christmas Bombing” I added.

“Yeah, the Christmas Bombing. I was there – glad I made it.”

The so-called “Christmas Bombing” in December 1972 ended the Vietnam War. For over ten days hundreds of B-52 sorties originating from Guam and Thailand rained destruction on Hanoi to get the North Vietnamese back to the table, end the war, and bring our POWs home. The powerful but lumbering B-52s had not yet ventured into the Hanoi area of North Vietnam, the most heavily defended airspace on earth. Lethal surface-to-air missiles took a fearsome toll, but the bombers kept coming. I knew about their need to change tactics to avoid greater losses, but what can you do in an airplane bigger than most airliners and not much more maneuverable? The crews knew the dangers, and after three nights of doing the same thing, how dumb that was. But they persevered – they went in.

So when my friend and fellow aviator Ed Beakley sent this fascinating video clip to his network, the story of one man who displayed courage and spoke truth to power, I watched with new-found respect. BGen G.R. Sullivan said no, we aren’t going to keep coming at them the same way night after night, and he took a courageous stand for his men. The men in this clip are all in their 70’s and 80’s now; the youngest might be 68. Take 35 minutes to watch this story, the story of Linebacker II, that served to end the Vietnam War, which began 45 years ago tonight, December 18, 1972.

My new friend at the shelter described going in at night, seeing bombers ahead of him burst into brilliant flame when hit, and watching the flaming wreckage fall to earth amid fireworks of rockets climbing to meet the next targeted bomber. He told me that he just tightened up in the cockpit and all but closed his eyes waiting for it to be over, a sensation I’ve heard related by other Vietnam aircrew. He obviously survived, and said he soon left the Air Force, having served our country with honor…and serving society today as a volunteer. Looking at him today you would never know what he did then. Shakespeare wrote that, “Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day.”

Tonight, let’s lift a glass to the aviators – in Thailand and Guam and aboard the carriers at sea – of Linebacker II as you enjoy Sully: A General’s Decision (Painting by Robert Bausch, USAF Art Collection)

America’s Team?

The Jacksonville Jaguars football team has a soft spot in my heart.

I was flying Hornets in Jacksonville during the 1996 season, the year they went to the AFC Championship game in only their second year of existence. Jacksonville fell in love with the Jaguars at first sight, and what a fun team, with Tony making huge running lanes for Natrone, and Mark throwing bombs to Jimmy and Keenan. Coach Coughlin was the stern task-master that called the shots, and the Jags owned Jacksonville.

My friend and qualified Hornet tailhooker Sam Kouvaris of Channel 4 hosted a weekly TV show about the team, as is found in most NFL cities. Sam invited my boys and I to the studio the following season for a taping of the show, and afterward the players he had as guests – they were not the stars mentioned above – signed autographs for the kids and a few dads. (Not me!)

My older boys, aged 10 and 8 at the time, stood in line for a chance to have these NFL football players sign their posters or jerseys or whatever they had. The players, heads down and not saying a word, signed what was placed in their hands by the adoring and awestruck kids. No smiling, no eye-contact. I felt bad for my boys, who even at a young age could sense that these grown men wished to be someplace else and not having to deal with the rock-bottom drudgery of being a pro athlete – signing autographs for kids. I don’t think anyone asked for a snapshot, too intimidated. The only sound heard was the squeaking of their Sharpie’s as they just scribbled their names as fast as they could.

The following week I took my family to NAS Cecil Field to see the Blue Angels perform at the Air Show. Over the years I’ve known many Blue Angel demo pilots and 1997 was no exception. I knew from talking to them that the demo could have had a close-call, and in the debrief there could be a frank – and I mean frank – reconstruction and personal accounting that left no doubt. Talk about putting your big-boy pants on, and rank means little or nothing. It’s six human beings who are risking their lives…no sugar-coating.

But before the debrief, and there is one after each demo, they pilots go to the crowd line and sign autographs. Not only that, they interact with the crowd, thank them for coming to see them, and pose for pictures. They do that until all have a chance for an autograph, or until pulled away to debrief or get back in their jets for the flight home. The photo above is of my friend Keith Hoskins, “Judge” as we know him by, taken when he was a Blue Angel demo pilot. Look at him smiling as he hands the little boy a program, down at his level, with what I am sure is a beaming parent behind the boy. This is not unusual…all the team members interact with the crowd this way. I assure you it is not an act, and despite the pressures of flying the demo, the long hours, the “commits,” the need to be “on” all the time representing the Navy and Marine Corps team, they make everyone feel special. All the guys (and gals) I’ve known on the team are great people.

I’m in my second season of “boycotting” the NFL. It’s more than disgust with Kaepernick and his fellow travelers taking a knee, more than the enabling of the league that allows these guys to hurt their product on company time. It is the ungratefulness they display, their sense of entitlement, playing a game for a living with the endorsement contracts and broadcast booth careers that follow. When the Blue Angel pilots finish their tours on the team they put on a green or khaki flight suit and go back to the fleet, America’s REAL team, deployed for months at a time, away from home, and risking their lives even more than when they performed the Loop Break Cross.

We saw the 2017 Jaguars, in England, make a political statement that at it’s core disrespects our country. Many of those that defend it live in Jacksonville, and word has it that this Veterans Day weekend they will make a statement of their own and not show up at Everbank Stadium. I have many retired shipmates in Jacksonville – they are seething at the Jags and won’t show up as they play the Chargers of all teams, a team that just last year jilted another Navy town. The Jaguars issued an apology to their fans, many of them active and retired military. Sorry guys, you screwed up and I think you are going to pay. When military guys screw up, and it happens, sometimes with spilled blood, there is a strict accounting. You are going to be held accountable, Jaguars, by the fans this time, not Coach Coughlin. Put your big-boy pants on and take it, and after this passes, smile at your good fortune and never take any of it for granted. Make every star-struck kid feel special…and earn back my respect. (And we’ll forgive…I’ve missed opportunities to make people feel special too.)

This stuff matters. Showing respect for the national anthem should bring us together as Americans. . Unfortunately, the disrespect trickles down. I was at a Division II football game in Pensacola over the weekend. The anthem was done with honor and the fans in this military town stood hand over hearts with respect. Scanning the sidelines, I noted that none of the players from either team were on them. Guess that’s a way for the schools to avoid even a hint of trouble vice setting a high standard for their student athletes to live up to. Is this going on elsewhere, a trend?

We need men and women to lead, now more than ever, in all parts of our imperfect society.

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