Essays - Winter 2019

Whiskey Foxtrot One-One

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My father was training to fight a war, but his real battle was with himself

By Jon Zobenica | December 3, 2018
Wreckage of Zobenica's F-4B Phantom II fighter-bomber after it sliced through 750 feet of forest and finally came to rest in a creek bed. (Courtesy of the author)
Wreckage of Zobenica's F-4B Phantom II fighter-bomber after it sliced through 750 feet of forest and finally came to rest in a creek bed. (Courtesy of the author)

My father, Ron Zobenica, had been a fighter pilot in the Marines, and his stories were filled with place names that, through repetition and association, took on a kind of lyrical air: Quantico, Pensacola, Meridian, Beeville, Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune, Saufley Field, and so on. Ron and my mom, Sandy, lived in Meridian, Mississippi, from May to November of 1964. Sandy was pregnant when they arrived, and my older sister, Haidee, was born in Meridian in September of that year. Ron was in basic jet training at McCain Field (subsequently renamed Naval Air Station Meridian) north of town.

It was the Freedom Summer, when civil rights workers were pushing to register as many black voters as possible in Mississippi in the lead-up to the fall election. The registration drive included young volunteers from the North, who came south to take part in the campaign. Speaking in a northern accent in Mississippi that summer could earn one anything from suspicion to hostility from the local white establishment, who resented the intrusions and the political agitations. Although my parents, both from the Upper Midwest, lived in off-base housing, Sandy did most of her shopping and errand running at the base commissary and PX rather than venture into downtown Meridian. Being plump with child, she did not attract suspicion as a Freedom Summer volunteer, but she was obviously a young northerner at a time when locals knew that such people looked down on Mississippi folkways.

The summer air crackled with a mix of pride, guilt, and resentment, to say nothing of potential violence, all of which made even the simplest interactions fraught, no matter the amount of southern courtesy brought to bear. (Tensions ran higher still when, late that June, the civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and personnel from McCain Field, including my father, were pulled off duty to man a sector-by-sector search for their bodies in the surrounding swamps.) Sandy didn’t want to upset people, since doing so upset her as well, so she kept to her own: the itinerant military community, made up of people from everywhere who, owing to the nature of military training schedules, didn’t stay anywhere very long.

They had their own folkways, those of a flying circus. Six months of officer’s basic school in Quantico, Virginia, was followed by five months of primary flight training in Pensacola, Florida, followed by six or seven months of basic jet training in Meridian, followed by four months of aerial-gunnery training and carrier qualifications back in Pensacola, followed by five or six months of advanced jet training in Beeville, Texas, and so on.

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