By Dennis Minich
Interviewing Briana Chiodini about her acceptance to the United States Naval Academy got me to thinking, this remarkable young woman was traveling a path of which I once dreamed.
Long before “Top Gun” made Naval aviators super cool, I dreamed of being an officer in the Navy and flying airplanes.
It started when I was five. My oldest brother, Russell, had enlisted in the Navy. I didn’t really understand such things, but when I first saw him in his “whites” he looked like a real-life superhero to me.
One of the first things he gave me was a booklet titled “Wings of Gold.” It was all about the Navy and airplanes and aircraft carriers. Through the years, I must have read that book 1,000 times. I am sure if I looked hard enough, I still have it somewhere. It was far too valuable to ever dispose of.
Russ was later stationed at the Naval Air Station in Olathe, Kansas. He lived in base housing, so I spent many an afternoon in his backyard watching planes take off and land. My favorite was touch-and-goes, where they would come in like they were going to land, but instead of stopping, they would barely touch the runway before blazing off again.
One day while on the base, I watched as an F-4 Phantom prepared for takeoff. We were off to the side, probably a couple blocks away, and you could feel the heat as the plane’s jet roared. I don’t know what he was waiting for, but for about three minutes we got a show of the majesty, the heat and the sound.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it shot down the runway and, before I could blink again, it was airborne, probably a mile down range.
For many years, I lived and breathed airplanes, and beside the pictures of baseball players on my wall, I had prints of the F-4H Phantom in Naval, Air Force and even Canadian designs. This was more than a passing fancy; in ninth grade in a career essay, I wrote of the life of a U.S. Naval officer.
Like many of my dreams, it was probably unrealistic to think I would ever have actually become a pilot, but I held on to it until two events my sophomore year in high school changed my vision of the future. One literally, the other figuratively. The first: I was informed I needed glasses. One thing I knew, to fly in the U.S. Navy you had to have 20/20 vision. There were no procedures to fix optical issues, so that dream came off the table. The second was my enrollment in NJROTC (Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.) I had anticipated this event for many reasons, but near the top of the list was a chance to wear the uniform and start the steps to a Naval career.
Before the first day of school, we met, much like a sports team, and uniforms were distributed: some browns, a dress-blue ensemble, as well as belts, hats and other adornments. My personal favorite was the pea coat, maybe the best winter coat I ever owned.
There were many great things about the ROTC year, including a week at the Great Lakes Naval Base, where we got an abbreviated version of basic training: the haircut sucked, there was nothing fun about getting gassed in a tear gas chamber, and fighting fires was a little intense.
But we also got to swim (and learned how to make a life jacket out of a pair of pants) and shoot rifles and pistols, and got three all-you-could eat meals daily. I still have the ribbon I earned for completing the week of training.
But my excitement quickly became tempered. Once a week we were required to wear a uniform to school, as well as to certain events such as football games or school open houses. Putting on the uniform, which I always thought would be the coolest and best, turned out to be just the opposite.
Remember, this was 1970, and protests of the Vietnam War were at a crescendo. Even someone in NJROTC was not exempt.
Walking through the school halls in uniform, we were harassed by a wide assortment of types. On the school coolness scale, the jocks were at the top, and the scale went all the way down to the nerds and the dopers.
Members of NJROTC were so low on the scale, even the nerds and dopers abused us. During that one year, I had numerous pieces of uniform or equipment vandalized, was the recipient of Nazi salutes and was even threatened physically. The classes were OK and we got to march in some parades and other events, but at the end of the year I turned my equipment back in. I was done.
My dream of a military career was also gone. As graduation loomed, my focus changed to the draft. I assumed when I graduated I would go to college, but if I was called to duty, I would likely still seek a tour in the Navy. But the draft ended that year, so it was a decision I never had to make. I never really considered it again, even though two of my best friends did tours (one retired after 20 years) in the Navy, and in many ways, I think maybe I missed out.
I cannot compare my experience in NJROTC to real-life veterans. They are heroes, I was a poser. They were the major leagues, I was bench of the high school junior varsity. But the ridicule and contempt aimed at us was vile. People genuinely hated us. Now I hear the stories of how the veterans were treated when they came home and I can relate, but not truly understand.
Fifteen years after my ROTC experience, I was covering a high school basketball game and the NJROTC drill team was introduced for the halftime entertainment. A cold chill ran down my spine, I felt so sorry for these kids. But a strange thing happened. As they marched on to the floor, a wave of thunderous applause broke out from the crowd. The drill team was sensational, the show remarkable and the crowd was into it every bit as much as they had been the game.
For the first time in many years, I remembered what that 5-year-old boy saw in his book with a Navy pilot on the cover. That’s what I would still like to be when I grow up.