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.”