Driving to Florida to meet fighter pilots and their wives

Most folks would agree, when they are involved with a new situation where you don’t know anyone, it leaves you with a feeling of anticipation. A few weeks ago, that’s what I felt when we were to go to Destin, Florida to celebrate Bill, my husband’s, 50th anniversary of getting pilot wings.

When Bill went to Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama for a year, and then to the 152nd Tactical Fighter Training Group in Tucson, Arizona, we were engaged. I was at the University of New Mexico finishing my degree to teach high school.

This was during Vietnam when the Air Force desperately needed pilots. About 75 young men started and 44 finished in a class 70/06. That means 1970, sixth class through the program. I did go down to see Bill graduate with his parents, Chet and Jessie White.

I dressed up for the occasion and got a lovely corsage from my sweetie. We proudly sat through a typical military dinner that would be a harbinger of many such dinners to come.

The next day, Bill received his wings and was assigned back to his unit, the 150th TFG, New Mexico Air National Guard. He flew F-100s, A7s, and F-16s over 33 years. But, I never knew those he trained with— because at the time, I was not yet a wife. The year Bill spent in Alabama was one of the best of his life, not just because it afforded him a living later, but because the friendships he forged with these men were forever. So, it left me a little nervous to meet those he held in such great esteem. I handled it as I usually do, with humor, hopefully.

The trip down to Florida took four days by car. We used it as a vacation to see friends and relatives along the way. The first night we were in Oklahoma, the second day we saw all of Arkansas, and notably Fort Smith. It was a Monday and while we had snacks in the car, by noon we were starving. The town advertises itself as quaint, turn of the last century unique. What it did not mention, when you look it up on Google, is that on Monday the entire adorable town closes up. After going to three places—all closed—we stumbled into Thai Curry, not something you would assume would be “good” in Arkansas. Don’t judge! It was the best Thai food we have ever eaten, and we love Thai. Andy Anokbergboun, our waiter and a university student, brought us the most wonderful pad Thai and chicken curry ever. Clean and tasty, what a combination!

Then the next thing we did in Arkansas was get lost. We missed Pine Bluff where Bill’s family hails from and ended up almost out of gas in the Delta near cotton fields. I had never seen real cotton fields on the stalk before, it was like someone’s cotton candy machine had gone wild. It was an adventure. We knew if we just kept going south, we would run into the Gulf.

We stayed in a small town for the night and the next day landed in Biloxi, Mississippi. Then we headed east and straight on to Florida. It was warm and the beaches held tons of seafood. Bill tried to consume all of the fried oysters in the Gulf. We met Bill’s classmates and their wives the first full day.

Rick and Daquiri Champion, who honchoed the event, were charming hosts. The had arranged deep sea fishing, golfing, and dinner reservations in truly authentic places that served local cuisine including cooking the fish that they brought in from the Gulf. That would be like us, in New Mexico, shooting an antelope up by Santa Fe and having McDonald’s making us all burgers. OK, maybe not McDonald’s.

The guys began to talk, and it was as if they had never been apart. Most of them had gone on after military obligations to fly for many different companies. If you were a Mouse in the corner you could hear all sorts of stories that were certainly new to you. The ladies of this group were to be sainted. I had it easy, while many of them had gone to Selma as new brides or with little children. Selma has a historical sense, but to live there in 1969 was a great commitment and these ladies were at the top of their game. They were kind enough to include me in their conversations and, as an outsider, I was thrilled to hear how military wives pull together. When Bill transferred from A-7s to F-16s, I remember that summer. It was tough and both our sons were grown. It was still hard with him gone and all the responsibilities of hearth and home were on me. If you read back a few columns you know how I loved his horses!

Everyone has a time in their life that is pivotal to their very being. That year was Bill’s moment and his brothers, his fellow pilots, made it possible. No one could ever speak to this accomplishment but one who did it. I am proud to have met the men I have heard stories about for 50 years. And I was honored to meet the wives. We know who mattered! Roaring Mouse, writing part two of the Road Trip to Florida. Out.

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