A number of years ago the U.S. Navy built an aviation museum on their air base at Pensacola, FL. Being the Navy, and all, they had an array of old planes and jets from various conflicts over the past century.
One of those planes was a fighter jet called a “Panther,” which was one of the ones my father flew off the aircraft carrier Boxer in 1953, during the Korean War. When they went looking for flight gear belonging to pilots of that plane, they found my dad, the packrat. He still had pretty much every piece of uniform and equipment he’d ever worn in six years of active duty and more than a decade of service in the reserves. The curators were excited to find a complete set of flight gear associated with their display plane, and asked to have it. Of course he was happy to send it, and they put it on display.
Since then, I’ve been meaning to make a trip to Pensacola to see the display. I had no news of what they did with the items, and so I didn’t know whether they were on permanent display, or what. For years I kept telling myself, “I should go see it.”
Time passed, my dad got older. And then much older. As his health has declined, I began to imagine not making it to Pensacola until after he’d passed, and that image didn’t appeal to me.
So, a few weeks ago when my daughter said she wanted to take off work during her son’s spring break from school and take the boys on a trip, I said, “Where do you want to go?”
“How about Pensacola? We could go see your grandfather’s stuff at the museum, then take the kids to the beach.”
Well, it turned out to be a plan, and Saturday before last we packed up the boys, ages three and five, to take them to Florida to visit their great-grandfather’s flight gear.
It’s a little over six hours from Middle Tennessee, which is the main reason I hadn’t gone before. Also, I dislike Florida intensely. I lived there for about three years long ago, and hated the bugs, humidity, rain, and the bathwater-temperature Gulf of Mexico. I grew up in California and laugh that Florida calls itself “The Sunshine State.” So I was a little apprehensive as we zoomed down I-65 toward the Gulf.
However, once I got there, I realized this was the first time I’d been to Florida as a tourist. We checked into a nice hotel smack on the beach, two nights paid for entirely by loyalty points earned by my husband, who literally travels for a living and sleeps in hotels approximately 300 nights out of the year.
Being right on the beach, every room in the hotel had a panoramic ocean view. Okay, it was the Gulf, but still… As soon as we were settled into the room, we took the kids down to the beach. They’d never seen one before.
Being March, it was still cold. The sun was off in the west, and the water was ice cold. Just my speed. It was a joy to watch the kids frolic (yes, they frolicked, there’s no other word for it) in the tiny, safe surf. It had been a long, boring drive, and now we were happy to watch the children play.
Dinner was at a place that specialized in crabs, right on the beach, and they had a playground for the kids. I splurged on a huge plate of enormous king crab legs, the first I’d ever had, cooked in a Cajun boil and accompanied by grilled corn on the cob and andouille sausage. Crab legs are astonishingly messy to eat, but to me it was a Grand Adventure. I didn’t bother trying to be neat, and just enjoyed.
The following morning we set out to find the museum. When the GPS system sent us up to the entrance to the air base, we thought we were going to be turned around and told where the museum really was. But we were in the right place. The guard checked our IDs and sent us onward.
The museum is really very nice. I’d pictured something more like a warehouse, or a hangar with planes standing around, but the displays were well thought out and interesting to look at. Some planes, including my dad’s Panther, were suspended from the ceiling. Right away I found a large model of the aircraft carrier Hornet, which was one of the ships my dad had been on. I stepped back to take a picture of it, liking the beam of sunlight shining on it from a skylight.
Then here came my five-year-old grandson, to take a close look at the model, and he stood right in the sunlight. I said, “Thank you, God,” and snapped the photo.
It wasn’t long before I found the flight gear. I went into the gift shop, came out the other side, and spotted my dad’s helmet from the back. There was no doubt; it had a dragon painted on it, and is probably unique. I’d grown up with that helmet in the house.
Because dad’s gear was a complete set, it occupied its own display case and covered an entire mannequin. Including sunglasses, which were Navy issue. It looked like a whole person standing there, with gloves, life vest, dog tags, the works. And his jacket was on a stand to the side. There was a placard, which gave his name and service history. Much more than I’d expected.
Of course I took photos. Some with me, some with the kids. Someday they’re going to understand what all that stuff was, and we’ll be glad to have photos of it.
As if this weren’t exciting enough, while looking for souvenirs in the gift shop, I found a book about the collection, and discovered they’d given an entire page of it to my dad. Including a photograph of him, sitting in a cockpit. I was astonished. Right in there with Alan Shepard. I bought two copies: one for myself, and one to send to my dad.
Eventually we wandered away. Me with my photos and book, the boys with a set of army Legos and a toy bulldog we named “Jarhead.”
Back at the hotel, I rested while everyone else went to the beach at the boardwalk. Dinner was more wonderful seafood.
The following day we let the kids have another day on the beach at the boardwalk. They dug in the sand with other kids, and collected shells their mother would later glue to a board with some photographs of them playing in the surf. I wandered the shops, buying souvenirs, some dumb and some practical. (How can anyone come back from Florida without a mug saying “Life’s a Beach”?) Then we made the six-hour drive home.
I’m really glad I went. My father is 86 years old and is in declining health. I was able to report to him how well-appreciated his donation is, and the trip was a happy one. My dad says, “I don’t care if they know who I am, I want them to know who we were.” He won’t be here forever, but his name is likely to be there for a long, long time.