I write to you on Saturday, May 2nd, the 57th day of our sequestration in Seattle. As I write, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are buzzing over the cities of Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. For the last ten days, those jets have been flying over U.S. cities to salute, they say, the healthcare workers who risk their lives to save ours.
Nearly every August since 1972, the Blue Angels have zoomed over Seattle for our annual Seafair Air Show. It is actually an air and water show, with both military jets and “unlimited hydroplanes”—motorboats hyper-powered by jet engines, hyper-polluting Lake Washington with oil and unburned fuel. These hydroplanes were originally invented here, in this water-hugged land, still Duwamish territory, now home to Boeing. Founded by a man who made his fortune felling Northwestern forests, Boeing sold its first jet engines to the U.S. Navy during World War I, shipping them to Pensacola—the city where I was born. My home in Seattle is only a few blocks from the site of the hydroplane races on Lake Washington. The race site is next to a wetland that volunteers spent years restoring. One week each year, for Seafair, the wetland park is filled with trucks hawking hamburgers, funnel cakes, and beer. Not incidentally, the race site grandstands offer the best seats for the Blue Angels’s annual performance.
Every Seafair weekend, we are prepared: reservations made, cooler cleaned out, snacks and beach chairs all packed up. We flee our neighborhood for a forested campground. Any will do, as long as it is at least 50 miles from home. We take one day off work so we can leave on Thursday afternoon, before the cars start lining up at dawn. Our neighborhood becomes gridlocked, abandoned coffee cups and beer cans and soda bottles filling our side yard. We’re lucky to live on the uphill side of the street. Our downhill-side neighbors with street-level yards have to stay home through Seafair weekend to keep people from using their flower and vegetable gardens as parking.
Despite my annual flight from Seafair, I have probably spent more time watching Blue Angels shows than any other resident of my Seattle neighborhood. When I was in elementary school, my family lived on the U.S. Navy base in El Centro, California, where the Blue Angels spent the winter twirling in the sky, spinning contrails, and occasionally spiraling down to the desert sand in lethal fireball crashes. For two hours every winter morning, Monday through Friday, Navy jet noise rattled our windows and my heart. Though I had little interest in planes, it was the soundscape of my childhood. My younger brother paid careful attention, learning to identify the combat and transport and surveillance aircraft by engine-noise alone.
El Centro, California sits low in the Imperial Valley desert, 44 feet below sea level, average July high temperature 107 degrees, just north of U.S. Interstate 8. When our Chevy Malibu exited the highway, the change in velocity usually roused me from road-trip stupor. I would look out the window to see the familiar words spray-painted in black on the highway overpass: “Navy Jet Noise: Sound of Freedom.” I didn’t think much about those words beyond their meaning to me: almost home. I understood only that they referred to my father’s profession. Dad worked on pilot safety, testing on himself the equipment that he helped design.
Deep desert sand was the softest possible surface on which to land, if you needed to abandon your airplane just before it crashed. And so test parachutists and Blue Angels were both based in El Centro, California, 90 miles east of San Diego, eight miles north of the Mexico border. Along with other Navy kids, my brother and I would ride out to the test site in the military hospital’s ambulance. We slid around on the smooth benches (where they would strap the stretchers of injured parachutists, if necessary), clinging to hold bars as the emergency vehicle bounced to the jump site. The narrow strip of shade created by the ambulance shielded us as we squinted up at our fathers. They floated back to sandy earth from desert sky below enormous fabric circles of white and green.
My mother never went with us. She usually told my father not to tell her which days he was “doing jumps,” because the worry ate her up.
My brother and I couldn’t conceive of the deep danger that my father and his coworkers faced. It was thrilling to watch tiny specks in the always-blue sky expand into human form. In our childish estimation, Mom was just too nervous, too afraid of things, didn’t understand that Dad was—of course!—invincible.
What does invincibility mean now? Our nation doesn’t have enough ventilators: a technology so simple that an engineer in Vermont built one in three weeks out of spare parts from his university lab and home basement. We don’t have enough surgical masks: a technology so simple that until a few weeks ago you could buy them in any pharmacy in any country I’ve ever visited. But my country has always made preparing for war a higher priority than other types of preparation. On military bases, much is made of sacrifice and little is made of risk. The risk is in service to the sacrifice; it goes without saying. With the pandemic, much has been made of essential workers’ sacrifice and risk, but so little has been done by our nation to mitigate them.
On one of Dad’s jumps (not one that my brother and I witnessed), his parachute had been packed incorrectly. It pulled him upside down as he fell through the air, his foot tangled in the lines. He continued to freefall, head first, toward earth. He pulled the cord to open his safety chute (every parachutist wears two), but the second parachute became tangled in the first, both only partly open. He strained his back and broke his ankle. My brother and I, aged six and eight, didn’t think much about Mom’s words: Dad was lucky to be alive.
We are all lucky to be alive. We are lucky to be surviving (so far) this pandemic.
I spent years trying to reconcile my military childhood with my anti-military adulthood. Many good things came from that childhood, in the heart of the military-industrial complex: I know what socialized healthcare and a welfare state look like because I grew up with those things. Everyone in the military and their families had access to medical care. Military housing was assigned in part based on family size. I grew up attending schools and living in neighborhoods with people who did not look like me, go to my family’s church, or speak the same language that I did at home. I am adaptable, having moved every few years on short notice, until I was 18. For all of that, I am deeply grateful.
But saying that the military has been, on par, good for this country is—as the old saying goes—like defending NASA because of Velcro and Tang.
One year, I wasn’t able to leave Seattle during the Blue Angels’s annual Seafair visit. A friend—who lived on a farm in a town without a stoplight—came to visit. She, her husband, and their toddler arrived at my house late on Saturday night, after a long drive. It was nearly midnight and the planes still thundered overhead. I cursed the roar, wanting freedom from Navy jet noise. She carried her whimpering toddler, too big for her arms, into my living room.
“Did you know there are airplanes flying over your house shooting fireworks out of their butts?” Her voice was brittle with anger and awe.
Since our sequestered spring began, I have savored the quiet. Only a few commercial flights slice the air overhead each day, on their way to and from Boeing Field and SeaTac. People walk and bike past my house on their way to Lake Washington. We are in no hurry; there is no need to drive.
Thinking of my childhood in El Centro, the jet noise is less memorable than the desert quiet that magnified small sounds. Wind skating over crusted sand. Dry ocotillo branches rattling. A roadrunner’s brown-crested head pitched forward, its feet scratching desert-varnished rocks. Overhead, tiny dots of men, my father among them, drifting silently back toward earth, large round pillows spread above them.
I write this letter to you, dear people of the United States, on the day after May Day, 2020. On that day, more people in this country died of COVID-19 than on any previous day. Two thousand, nine hundred, and nine. Nearly as many as died on September 11, 2001. More than have died on any single day of war in our nation’s history.
GE workers in Lynn, Massachusetts went on strike one month ago because they wanted to make ventilators, not jet engines. A new ventilator retails for $25,000. The Vermont engineer says he can build more of his “Vermontilator” for a few hundred bucks. Each time the Blue Angels come to Seattle’s Seafair, it costs between $1 and $2 million. So many ventilators. So many masks.