At 23, [Healdsburg resident] Ron Oliver just wanted to fly something super fast, and torqued himself through the Air Force Academy to earn the privilege. Mock Two, a play on words on the speed of sound, and the F4 Oliver flew and affectionately called ‘the beast’ begins in Da Nang in 1967.
Young Oliver and another rookie walk into their quarters on day one of their war and are greeted by a jovial Pete Johnson, whose tour is up the next day. Moments later the guy walks out the door and is killed by a rocket entering the compound. From that moment on, the war is all about staying in one piece.
Oliver, a ‘backseater’ in a two seat jet fighter, peppers the reader with vignettes of the Russian roulette of front seat pilots he flew with. The front cover photograph shows a sleek shark of a flying, killing machine, sitting in the grass, it’s landing gear scraped off in one in a series of missed appointments with death, and the reader takes that precarious ride over and over with him.
The premise alone that this uber jet should be operated by two people who have never flown together before illustrates the zany nature of the combat mentality. Each account is saturated with the adrenaline of the best of the best, these top guns, never knowing when a pilot might come to his tipping point, sending him off the rails.
And this is a love story. In appropriately salty terms, Oliver tells it straight, but his language turns to soft words on the pillow when talking about the F4 and what it’s like to fly it. But it’s a crazy kind of love, soul chafing. The cost of flying ‘the beast’ is he has to drop bombs to do it, lots of ‘em.
Oliver’s honesty lets us see how he feels the satisfaction of hitting a target, like sizzling a fast ball into the strike zone. Yeah, I am scared, outraged, blood-lusted, amused, exhilarated, I’m certainly not exonerated, I may be doomed, and soon I will be drunk. When conscience takes control of the joystick, it pulls him into an emotional tailspin.
This is a bedeviled hero’s journey. Oliver refers to the pilots as ‘sub-gods’ with more than a little irony. We get inside the emerging beliefs of a guy who smells the foul breath of the reaper every day, measuring time by ‘missions north’. He is witty and wise, an outsider, and one of the sub-gods, sharply intuitive and blatantly irreverent. His only religion is the F4. We see a hairline crack form before all hell breaks loose inside him.
The indelible events of some forty plus years ago arrive with an eerie kinship with the warriors of today. It’s a journey with taking, every last run.
Ron Oliver is a long time Healdsburg resident.
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