BACK TO LEMOORE
Lemoore was a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, not far from
Fresno. Why a Naval air station had been built there was a question no one
could answer. Unbearably hot in summer and with frequent dense fog in the
winter, it was the wrong place to fly airplanes. The summer heat sometimes
precluded fl ying because hot air, less dense than cold air, did not allow an
engine to generate enough thrust to get airborne. Although there was plenty
of runway, there was not enough power to reach fl ying speed. The winter
fog was often so thick that Harry sometimes drove with his head sticking out
the window so he could follow the dashes in the middle of the road. The fog
was graded by the number of dashes visible. Luminous tape was pasted on
lampposts and driveways so drivers could fi nd their houses.
It was soon after Harry joined the squadron that the Tonkin Gulf incident
occurred -- or didn’t occur -- depending on whom you believed. Harry
followed the action closely over the next months, and it became more and
more apparent that his squadron would sooner or later be involved. One
serious sign that the problem was worsening was the number of airplanes
lost. Before long, they were being shot down with alarming frequency.
One result was the black limousine often seen driving through the streets
of Lemoore and nearby Hanford, where many Navy families lived. When
Harry saw a black limo, with two uniformed offi cers in the back seat, he
knew that someone was about to get terrible news.
It was a hard time for those who stayed behind, and especially for the
families of those who would not come home. Women whose husbands were
away were known as cruise widows. Some became real widows. Most were
young with small children. Some were pregnant. In a great tradition of the
Navy, those still waiting to go looked after these families as best they could.
Harry became close to a woman who lived in his apartment complex. Her
husband, whom Harry knew, had been shot down over North Vietnam. No
one knew if he was alive or dead. She was seven months pregnant and had
nowhere to go, no one to turn to. Harry stopped by often to see her, to help
her. One night, as he left, she came to the door with him, as she usually
did. As Harry bent to kiss her cheek, she suddenly took him in a desperate embrace.
He felt her sob on his shoulder. She pulled back and smiled through
“Sorry, Harry, it’s just that I feel so lost.”
Harry drew her close again. “It’s not easy, I know, but you have got to
hang in there,” he said as he kissed her cheek. That was a dumb thing to say,
but he could not think of anything better. She stepped back, looked at him
for a moment or two.
“You’re a good man, Harry. Your wife is a lucky girl, whoever she is.”
There were others like her. It was not a good time to be married to a
Despite the war, or perhaps because of it, social gatherings still took
place. No one called them parties. That would sound insensitive in such a
sensitive time; but the need to release tension was manifested frequently.
Harry held one such “relief valve,” as Jack Rooney called them, at his
apartment. Among those he invited was a cruise widow named Sue Woodley.
Asking her to join them was a hard decision; was it the right thing to do?
Finally, he called, saying he would understand if she chose not to come. She
said she would be there and thanks for thinking of her.
“I need some company,” she said.
Harry knew her husband and knew that he had been hit over North
Vietnam, made it to the sea, and ejected. He was not found and was offi cially
listed as missing in action. Until a man was confi rmed dead, the Navy listed
him as missing. That way, his pay to his family continued. Sue had two
young daughters, and she did not know if their father was alive or dead. She
was a feisty young lady and she had determined that her husband was alive
and would one day return to his family.
“I know in my heart that he will come home,” she told Harry. “I just
know it.” Harry hoped his name would not come up at his party. It did, and in a
By chance, one of those at the party had been in the area where Walt
Woodley had gone down. Like others in the vicinity, he quickly fl ew to
the site and took part in the search for the downed pilot. Now, at Harry’s
party, his tongue loosened by bourbon, he told Sue what he had seen. As
she listened, her face becoming ashen, the pilot described seeing Walt, face
down in the water and lifeless.
“He’s for sure dead,” said the pilot to the suddenly silent group. Jack
Rooney heard it coming and tried to intervene, but he was too late.
“Asshole!” he hissed to the pilot. “What were you thinking?”
The pilot looked confused. He did not understand that he had done
something wrong. “I just thought she should know,” he said lamely.
“Sure,” said Jack, “one day, but not here and not now -- and not like
this.”Harry never saw Sue again after that night. Some years later, he was
gratified to learn that she had married again, this time to a dentist, and was
living in Ohio. He felt happy for her.
If a pilot wanted to know the latest news from the Tonkin Gulf, he went
to the Flying Spinnaker. This bar and restaurant, midway between the base
and the town, became the unofficial source for the latest information about
the war. Harry stopped in often and never failed to fi nd friends there. He
could usually count on meeting Jack there. The time of day did not seem to
matter. Even pilots’ wives stopped by to hear the latest news that somehow
seemed to come there fi rst, even before the base or the news media reported
it. Single women were in great demand in Lemoore and they, too, could often
be found at the Spinnaker. Harry met one who had come all the way from
San Francisco. But mainly, it was a gathering place for pilots to drink and
talk about fl ying, their hands describing aerial tactics as they did. The Flying
Spinnaker became, for some, a home away from home. Harry always looked
forward to stopping there even though its news was sometimes grim.
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