Tags: USS Kitty Hawk
Stephen Rodrick’s father, Commander Peter Rodrick, was the skipper of VAQ-135 and an EA-6B Prowler pilot who was killed off the Kitty Hawk when Stephen was thirteen. In his book, The Magical Stranger, Rodrick re-traces his father’s life by talking with his friends and squadron mates. But to get a full feeling for his father’s experiences, Rodrick followed his dad’s old squadron for two years as they prepared to deploy to the Persian Gulf for missions over Afghanistan. He established a particular kinship with Commander James Hunter ‘Tupper’ Ware, a man about to take his dad’s old job.
Commander James Hunter Ware III carefully laid out a white uniform on the bed in his Anacortes, Washington, home. He took out a ruler and made sure his medals were perfectly aligned, a trick he learned at the Naval Academy. On paper, he was the American man as hero. There was the buzz cut, the flight jacket, and a cowboy’s squint. His garage housed his Harley, a beat-up Ford pickup truck, a still for his nasty homemade hard cider, and license plates from five states. He was an Eagle Scout, an Annapolis grad, and a former test pilot. For a decade, he had flown in harm’s way—most recently jamming Taliban communications in the skies above Afghanistan—and then landed his EA-6B Prowler in the dark on the deck of a carrier. There were ribbons on his uniform to prove it.
Tonight, Ware dressed for VAQ-135’s dining-out, a formal dinner marking the squadron’s change of command. Tomorrow, he would become skipper of a squadron heading to sea, the Navy’s glamour job.
There was so much he wanted to do. He’d been in enough squadrons where number chasing was the only goal: percentage of sorties completed, percentage of sailors promoted, percentage of wives participating in Toys for Tots, blah, blah, blah. The Navy was no longer about sailors, thought Hunter;
it was about stats and checking boxes. As far as he knew, a stat wasn’t what would get a Prowler aboard a carrier in a driving rainstorm. It was the 167 men and women of VAQ-135, and they’d have to do it with the four oldest EA-6B Prowlers in the fleet.
Ware knew it sounded new agey, but his command was going to stress “sailors taking care of sailors.” That didn’t mean screwups and misconduct would be ignored—Ware had no tolerance for shitty sailors and excuses—but it did mean looking out for one another, taking personal responsibility, and not passing the buck—long a VAQ-135 staple. Ware guessed if he could pull that off, not nearly as easy as it sounded, getting jets in the air and getting jets home safe wouldn’t be a problem. Promotions and sortie completion quotas would follow, and pretty soon he’d have his dream: the top electronic attack squadron in the U.S. Navy. If all that happened, his own future—he had dreams of commanding his own ship—would be his to write.
Ware could change lives with a signature, but at home he was still a figurehead king. Downstairs, he could hear his daughters—twelve-year-old Brenna and ten-year-old Caitlin—chattering with his wife, Beth, and his mother, Cindy, about dance classes, Harry Potter, and sleepovers. He caught snippets of dialogue as he drifted in and out of ear-shot. He knew his daughters better than most Navy dads, but sometimes he felt like a stranger in his own home, trying to understand a language not his own.
Ware spent a lot of time laughing about how little power he held over his own life. (It beat crying.) A Pentagon fleet monkey decided when he came and went. Another fleet monkey ruled on his screwups. Entire days were spent trying to protect himself and his sailors from the flying bullshit being pushed by men living in the D.C. echo chamber—men who hadn’t been to sea for years, men who had forgotten what it was like to spend eight months away, missing babies being born.
In reality, Ware didn’t even hold the deed to his own name. He was named James after his father and grandfather, but raised as Hunter, shortened to Hunt by his mom and Beth. But that was only within the confines of his Anacortes home, a twenty-minute drive from the back gate of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. In the Navy, Ware was known by his call sign, “Tupper,” a not-clever play on his last name. Ware grew up dreaming of Maverick and Ice, so he didn’t much like being known by the trademarked name of a brand of plastic containers. Still, he knew it could be much worse: The Black Ravens’ ready room featured a Crapper and a Turd. In the real Navy, call signs were ego-killing nicknames designed to strip away rank and privilege, making everyone equal in the cockpit—a good thing when skies turned black. Tupper knew call signs would be gone soon, or at least the R-rated ones—victims of a politically correct Navy hell-bent on not offending anyone. Sure, it would suck to tell your son that your call sign was slang for shit, but where was the line? He didn’t know. He was serving in a Navy that was waging two wars while afraid of its own shadow.
Sometimes, he had to remind himself why he got into the flying business. It was simple: he had no choice. He knew it sounded corny, but when he saw Top Gun at sixteen, that was it. Suddenly, every conversation was about Annapolis, flying
jets off carriers, and the need for speed. (He wrecked three cars in high school.) Spare quarters were spent down at the arcade playing After Burner, a Navy pilot video game. There was no Plan B. The Air Force Academy sent a representative to his house and promised Tupper a slot if he wanted it. Tupper shook his hand and looked him in the eye.
“Thanks, but I’m not interested. I want to fly jets off carriers.”
But now even flying jets off carriers had lost some of its allure: too many rules and regs to follow. Couldn’t fly the Prowler below 500 feet, couldn’t make a hard break toward the carrier at more than 350 knots. Sometimes, Tupper muttered to himself: “What the hell is this? The goddamned Air Force?”
And the paperwork! Forms for this, forms for that. Fit reps to write, everyone gets an award come end of cruise. Jesus Christ! Sometimes he felt like Dilbert with gold wings.
But he pushed all of that out of his mind. Tomorrow was what mattered. “Concentrate on the important things,” he told himself. “This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Beth came into the room. “Hunt, we’ve got to go in ten minutes.”
Beth was the one who had sacrificed the most. They met at Penn State after he had been rejected by Annapolis—his first Navy kick in the crotch—and she stuck with him when he got into the Naval Academy on his second try. Their relationship was ruled by absence from the start. At the academy, Tupper would go over the wall and jump into Beth’s car and they’d head off to D.C. for a day. But then there was flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and Meridian, Mississippi. On the rare free weekend, he’d call Beth in Pennsylvania and they’d find a spot on the map halfway between them.
Tupper hemmed and hawed about whether to end it. Navy life wasn’t easy for a young wife. Beth was the first college graduate from a working-class Pittsburgh family; there were things she wanted to do. Tupper thought maybe it would be better if he went at it alone for a while.
He turned it over in his head for months. But he was miserable without her. He called her one day and told her he was going to fly his A-4 Skyhawk into State College and visit Penn State for a ROTC event. Could she meet him there?
She agreed. His plan was a complete lie. He made the 1,000-mile drive from Meridian to State College in his Mitsubishi Eclipse and arrived a day before her. He bluffed his way into Snyder Hall, his old dorm, and went up to room 406. He knocked on the door. Two guys answered and stared at the buzz-cut Hunter in his green flight jacket. He asked them if he could buy a few hours in his old room in exchange for some Fly Navy coffee mugs, a case of beer, and some squadron patches. The boys agreed.
Beth arrived the next day. Hunter took her up to see his old room. He pushed open the door and she lost her breath. The kids had blown up one hundred balloons and tied them to the ceiling. They fell on Tupper and Beth when they opened the door. Hunter pulled out an engagement ring. Beth said yes. They both wept.
They picked a wedding date six months down the road and reserved a mansion in Coraopolis, just outside of Pittsburgh. Tupper plugged through the rest of flight school. He passed his final flight tests. He was scheduled to receive his wings of gold on May 25, 1995, at NAS Meridian.There was just one problem: May 12 was his wedding day.
Tupper told his commanding officer that he wouldn’t be there. He was told that wasn’t acceptable. Ensign Ware and a Navy captain played chicken for a day. Eventually, the Navy conceded. Tupper and Beth were married as scheduled. The following week, Beth pinned on his wings in the CO’s office back in Meridian.
Tupper had put Beth before the Navy. That wouldn’t happen again for a very long time.
Tupper watched as Beth brushed out her brunette hair. He would take command in less than eighteen hours, but he didn’t feel triumphant. Instead he felt sorrow—sorrow for what he was about to put Beth and the kids through. Sorrow for what he had missed. He’d already been gone most of the spring and summer on workups, getting ready for a six-month deployment that began in three weeks. It would fall on Beth to take care of the girls and, as skipper’s wife, watch over the families left behind, just like it had fallen on my mother thirty years ago. She had cut back her hours as a dietitian working with disadvantaged young mothers because someone had to be there for the girls, someone had to give them a sense of stability, and it certainly wasn’t going to be their father.
It was just another in a long list of sacrifices she had made for her husband. They had been together for over twenty years and between workups, cruises, and overseas detachments,
Tupper calculated he had been gone for five of them. The girls had grown used to it in their own way. Beth found Cait- lin the perfect pet: a dwarf hamster with the life expectancy of two years, exactly the length of a Navy tour of duty. But that was when they were younger. Now Beth was worn out and the girls were old enough to know what they were missing. So was Tupper. Recently, Beth started asking tough questions.
“How much more? Hunt, I can’t do this forever. I’m tired. The girls are tired.”
“Just a little bit longer.”
He thought of everything he had put her through. Back in 2000, he’d been tapped for test pilot school in Patuxent River, Maryland, a sign his career was on the fast track. Tupper told Beth he’d be home for dinner most nights, a welcome relief for her after he’d been at sea for most of their babies’ lives. But there was always a new jet to master, a new manual to plow through, a flight plan that needed revising. He made it home for dinner once a week at best. Then came 9/11, and he was stuck at test pilot school for another year. Troops and jets poured into Afghanistan and Iraq and he wasn’t part of it. To fill the time, he decided to get a master’s degree in engineering from Johns Hopkins at night. He saw his family even less. There is a saying in the Navy: “There are horses that ride and horses that don’t, and if you ride, be prepared to get ridden to death.” Tupper galloped into his future, and no one warned him about the cost.
Tupper and Beth worked out a way to make parting less painful. A few months before each cruise, they began a home project that they had no chance of completing before his deployment. (This year it was redoing the backyard.) They would inevitably come up short and snipe at each other just before he left. Somehow, bruising their love made parting less painful. Tupper knew that civilians found their elaborate routine beyond crazy, but inside the Navy, their friends just nodded. Whatever it takes.
It was time to go. Tupper went down the stairs and talked to his girls: Brenna, the prim ballerina, and Caitlin, who loved to wrestle weeds out in the yard with her dad. Recently, Tupper had watched a video of a younger version of himself recording Brenna’s favorite bedtime stories so she wouldn’t forget him while he was away on his first cruise. There were tears in his eyes as he read, just as there were tears as he watched it a decade later. Still, he went away. And not just that once, but over and over again. He had just turned forty. He was starting to add up all the damage that had been done. Had it been worth it? He didn’t know.
Beth came down the stairs, still as beautiful to him as the day they met. She gave the girls some final instructions, and then the couple jumped into Beth’s BMW SUV. Tupper carefully backed the car out of their cul-de-sac and asked his wife one question.