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Flying a Desk: Less Glamour, More Reality


Dustin sent me an essay that our friend Frank wrote for the U.S. Navy War College website.

"I spend my days sequestered in a dismal pooka only to churn out mindless reports of barely readable administrivia," Frank writes. "[At the end of the day], I proceed to my truck to enjoy at least an hour and a half of bumper-to-bumper traffic. ... I will be getting up at 0600 the next morning to repeat the rinse cycle I call duty in Washington, D.C."

I can absolutely hear Frank's voice as I read. I can also hear his laugh -- loud, from the belly, and totally infectious. But I don't recognize this man who just 14 years ago played a major part in many of my favorite memories of the guys at flight school in Pensacola, Fla.

They were in the best shape of their lives. We were all young and without a routine. Sometimes Dustin flew at night, sometimes early in the morning, or in the afternoon.

We spent his days off at the beach. Often, I went to an open field in nearby Pace, Fla., to watch his T-34 fly overhead.

Back then, I pitied the older commanders who had to leave Flounder's early to relieve babysitters.

I didn't envy their monotony or the beaten down looks on their faces. Their bellies had grown wider and their steps slightly less eager. It was as if deployments, PowerPoints, and pookas had sucked the life out of them.

Dustin and Frank -- well, they were a spitting image of Zack Mayo in "An Officer and a Gentleman." There was so much ahead of them. They were living off the adrenaline of flight and an insatiable desire to serve their country.

Now, I'm reading about Frank's "hamster wheel of reality" and his anger at morning rush-hour traffic? He's gone from the enviable and exciting life of an active Navy pilot to a "mid-career lieutenant commander stationed in the beltway."

In other words, Frank is flying a desk. So is Dustin. I can't remember the last time either of them flew an airplane. They are not yet 40 years old. They've become the "older commanders."

Until my dad retired from the Navy in 2004, I said that he was a Navy pilot, too. But the fact is, he hadn't piloted an airplane since probably 1990. He'd been flying a desk, and sometimes driving an aircraft carrier, for a much longer time.

In February, when he took my boys to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., he showed them the actual A-4 he used to fly

Lindell told me, "Pop showed us an airplane at the museum."

"Yes," I said. "It's the actual plane he used to fly."

Lindell looked confused. "It's the plane that who used to fly?" he asked.

It made no sense to him that the pilot was Pop. For as long as Lindell has known Pop, he's had an office, a desk and a cell phone clipped to his belt.

That window for being an exciting Navy pilot is exceptionally short and narrow. I wonder how well recruiters relay this fact? Soon enough, the reality of a different type of military sacrifice and commitment becomes clear, with less perks and more dedication required. There is beauty in this, too.

In his essay, Frank says that his 3-year-old son wants to be in the Navy, too -- despite never having known his father during what we would call his more glamorous Navy days.

"Suddenly, my station in life improves," Frank writes as he reflects on his son's desire. "The grey windowless box I work in transforms into a nerve center of naval intelligence, and I am now an integral cog in the wheel of the machine that drives this global force for good."

Yet Frank is also puzzled. How can his son ultimately want this 9-to-5 grind at a windowless pooka?

Frank writes, "The one percent of the country serving in uniform [passes] the tradition down like a shop owner," and "the aroma of service permeates through the offspring of America's fighting men and women like the odor of the boat clings to a flight suit."

I don't remember Frank being so grown-up and mature over beers at Flounder's. Airplane pilot or desk pilot, he's still one of my favorites.

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Family and Spouse Sarah Smiley

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.

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