I feel the roar in my trembling sternum as a massive fighter plane screams past my window, my first-floor window. Forgive me all you veteran Seattleites, this is my second Boeing Seafair Airshow, (August 3-5). This is just the practice day before the real thing. I am still recovering from the Fourth of July. It seems that my new home is not only a Seafair flight path, but also fireworks central (the legal and extra-legal kind). Unfortunately on that long night, I could only hear the hours of gun powder exploding without evidence of the associated light show. My neighborhood felt more like Beirut during the civil war than a glorious national holiday. I kept peering off my deck to be sure this was really not gunfire.
The pinnacle of the airshow this past weekend is the arrival of the Blue Angels, six McDonnell Dougals F/A-18 Hornet Jets streaking across Lake Washington in various daredevil formations and then tearing off into the great beyond, only to return for another bout of chest pain inducing, ear throbbing, aerial aerobatics. Don’t get me wrong, the perfect balletic formations, the planes sometimes 18 inches apart and flying up to 700 mph are awe inspiring and a tribute to technology, the human imagination, and the willingness of (mostly) men to engage in a macho, testosterone driven display of skill and power. How else can I explain fighter planes hurtling towards each other, only to dip their wings and scoot past without a scratch or flying upside down in mind boggling, graceful loops and dives, etching puffy vapor trails on the cornflower blue sky? This is not normal. Your mother would not let you do this. The job is reported to have a 10% mortality rate.
The party begins with neighbors drinking beer and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man blaring from someone’s deck. I feel very AMERICAN. As dogs bark and cower, the magnificent blue planes, US NAVY embossed in a bright banana yellow on their sides, thunder overhead. A thick jet fuel haze settles over the usually pristine lake.
As the shock and awe settles in I start worrying: how do the Great Blue Herons I often see standing stock still at the lake’s shore watching for dinner feel about all this competition? Can a bird die of fright? Will all the Common Mergansers, Canada Geese, and Large Mouth Bass have little heart attacks and turn belly up on the water’s surface? And what about the newly arrived from various war-torn countries? Are they hiding in their bedrooms, breathing deeply as their PTSD and flashbacks bolt out of their subconscious?
These are after all war planes. They are designed to drop bombs on the people below, to kill them and destroy the towns and cities where they live. Boeing is not only a major Seattle employer, but “the world’s largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners and defense, space and security systems.” This means that Boeing makes military aircraft, the electronics, launch systems, and advanced technology that makes war possible on a 21st century scale. And we are here celebrating all of this along with the US Navy and the heroic pilots that fly these fighter jets.
I think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza. I wonder what these pilots have seen and what they have done. I think of apartments turned to rubble and wounded children screaming and fields poisoned by the detritus of war. I think of all the nuclear submarines lurking below the twinkling surface of Puget Sound, reportedly 20 minutes from downtown Seattle. I think of living in a culture that celebrates militarism and machismo and the fist over an outstretched hand.
Suddenly a thick flock of birds rises out of the trees, dancing, swirling, inches apart in perfect formation. A thing of awesome beauty without the jet fuel settling on all the garden tomatoes and scumming up the lake, the thunderous noise, and the obvious human danger.
As the final formation blasts back to Boeing Field, God Bless America blares from nearby speakers, the crowd tosses back another few beers, and heads back to their cars. My patriotic fervor is dwindling. My two-year-old granddaughter sleeps through the whole show. Perhaps that is a good thing.