The Magazine

24 Hours on the 'Big Stick'

What you can learn about America on the deck of the USS 'Theodore Roosevelt.'

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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And yet an aircraft carrier is more an example of what people can do than what government can't. Scores of people are all over the flight deck during takeoffs and landings. They wear color-coded T-shirts--yellow for flight-directing, purple for fueling, blue for chocking and tying-down, red for weapon-loading, brown for I-know-not-what, and so on. These people can't hear each other. They use hand signals. And, come night ops, they can't do that. Really, they communicate by "training telepathy." They have absorbed their responsibilities to the point that each knows exactly where to be and when and doing what.

These are supremely dangerous jobs. And most of the flight deck crew members are only 19 or 20. Indeed the whole ship is run by youngsters. The average age, officers and all, is about 24. "These are the same kids," a chief petty officer said, "who, back on land, have their hats bumped to one side and their pants around their knees, hanging out on corners. And here they're in charge of $35 million airplanes."

The crew is in more danger than the pilots. If an arresting cable breaks--and they do--half a dozen young men and women could be sliced in half. When a plane crashes, a weapon malfunctions, or a fire breaks out, there's no ejection seat for the flight deck crew. While we were on the Theodore Roosevelt a memorial service was held for a crew member who had been swept overboard. Would there have been an admiral and a captain of an aircraft carrier and hundreds of the bravest Americans at a memorial service for you when you were 20?

Supposedly the "youth vote" is all for Obama. But it's John McCain who actually has put his life in the hands of adolescents on a carrier deck. Supposedly the "women's vote" is . . . well, let's not go too far with this. I can speak to John's honor, duty, valor, patriotism, etc., but I'm not sure how well his self-discipline would have fared if he'd been on an aircraft carrier with more than 500 beautiful women sailors the way I was. At least John likes women, which is more than we can say about Hillary's attitude toward, for instance, the women in Bill's life, who at this point may constitute nearly the majority of the "women's vote."

These would have been interesting subjects to discuss with the Theodore Roosevelt shipmates, but time was up.

Back on the COD you're buckled in and told to brace as if for a crash. Whereupon there is a crash. The catapult sends you squashed against your flight harness. And just when you think that everything inside your body is going to blow out your nose and navel, it's over. You're in steady, level flight.

A strange flight it is--from the hard and fast reality of a floating island to the fantasy world of American solid ground. In this never-never land a couple of tinhorn Second City shysters--who, put together, don't have the life experience of the lowest ranking gob-with-a-swab cleaning a head on the Big Stick--presume to run for president of the United States. They're not just running against the hero John McCain, they're running against heroism itself and against almost everything about America that ought to be conserved.

P. J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.