Will I Ever be an Expert?


At first, I wasn't quite sure if I'd heard the question correctly. The restaurant was noisy, after all, with the particular cacophony that any gathering of naval aviators and naval flight officers inevitably induces: much talk of flying, punctuated by boisterous laughter and the half-joking, half-serious ribbing of Type A personalities taking the measure of one another.

"So, you're an expert on Navy life now, huh?"

Until that point, I had been making typical polite "squadron function" small talk with this gentleman, one of Sampson's flight simulator instructors. Now, all sim instructors have a certain reputation that stems from the fact that their job is to put students in a stuffy box shaped like an aircraft cockpit and attempt to "kill" them in all manner of fiendish ways. A "dead" pilot can then expect to be told -- in excruciating detail, sometimes at high volume -- exactly how they screwed the pooch on that simulated emergency and how very final that one tiny mistake would have been in the real cockpit.

The idea is, of course, that high-stress simulated emergencies so firmly etch the proper procedures into a young pilot's muscle memory that the response to an actual "really bad day" in the airplane will be immediate, correct, and life-saving. When students talk about the sim instructors, the conversation usually goes as one would expect when the subject is the angry old man who stuffs you in a box and gleefully yells at you when you're doing your damnedest just to stay on top of all the catastrophes he's throwing at your aircraft from the comfort of his chair in front of the sim computer screen. The guy with whom I was chatting that evening, though, was legendary even among sim instructors. We'll call him "The Phenomenon."

The Phenomenon had a strange gleam in his eye as he awaited my answer. My smile froze on my face as I did the mental rewind in an attempt to figure out how we had gone from the usual party chit-chat about where I was from and how long my husband and I had been married to the sudden feeling that I was in the sim and he'd just thrown up a warning light to see how I would react to the problem. The look on his face said that I was most definitely being graded on my response.

Was I an expert on Navy life? What kind of question was that, first of all? Sampson and I had been together for a number of years and we'd learned quite a bit about the Navy flight school experience, but he hadn't even hit his first fleet squadron yet, much less gone on deployment. An expert, though?  I mean, I thought I knew a fair amount about what we'd seen so far, so maybe that's what he was getting at...

A trace of a smirk twitched the corners of the Phenomenon's lips as he awaited my answer. Waitaminute, my brain interrupted before I could open my mouth. This joker is trying to catch you! He wants you to claim you know everything. In that split second, I could see that the Phenomenon was primed to pounce the instant the young wife in front of him dared make such a foolish statement.

I smiled brightly and said something about how I'd learned a bit about dating a midshipman and being married to a flight student, but I couldn't possibly be an expert when there was still so much we hadn't experienced yet. It might have been my imagination, but I fancied I caught a flash of disappointment that the Phenomenon wasn't going to get a chance to school this wife for youthful arrogance. Score! I must have given the right answer.

Even several years later, I still think of the Phenomenon's little "test" at odd moments. His smug, probing look pops into my head when I catch myself starting to think that I've got all this Navy stuff figured out. At the time, I was rather offended that this guy would try to size me up like one of his students. Now, I'm almost grateful that he put me on the spot. We're heading into the countdown for Sampson's second deployment, and it is awfully tempting to believe I know precisely what to expect. All it takes is the thought of a sim instructor just dying to stick a needle in this "expert's" overinflated ego to get my head back down to size before I start thinking I should pontificate upon my vast Navy wisdom.

Will I ever be able to call myself an expert on Navy life? Perhaps, but not now, not anytime soon, and not without the caveat that my expertise applies only to our small corner of the Navy experience. Your mileage will almost certainly vary.

So, I'm dying to know: Has anyone ever asked you a "gotcha" question? How did you respond? Did you feel as awkward and on-the-spot as I did? If someone asked if you were a military life expert, would your answer be "Heck yes" or "No way"?

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