By the People… A pilot's life: My career in the U.S. Navy begins
Craig Ziemba lives in Meridian and works at Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field's Air National Guard base. He wrote a cover story for the recent "Profile 2001: By the People" edition.
Ziemba has written a book about his experiences, portions of which will be published in The Meridian Star in coming weeks.
By Craig Ziemba/Special to The Star
March 7, 2001
It's May 27, 2000 and I'm writing this onboard a flight to Rio de Janeiro to fly souped-up A-4 Skyhawks.
Yesterday was my last day on active duty in a Navy jet squadron, and today I'm in civvies headed to South America for a reunion with my favorite aircraft of all time. At 31, I have a lot of miles for my age, and some of the most challenging lie dead ahead.
Just when I thought my days of flying tactical jets were over, I got a call from a company that is going to train the Brazilian students we just winged in Meridian to fly A-4s. Mom always said I fall into cesspools and come out with gold earrings.
At the top of my lungs
It's been a long road getting here. I was born and raised in the "Cradle of Naval Aviation" and, like all other Pensacola boys, dreamed of flying jets. I started flying as a teen-ager and when I was accepted to Aviation Officer Candidate School my junior year in college, I jumped at the chance.
Was I ever excited as I walked, suitcase in hand, up to the Battalion Headquarters at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
The second I hit the top stair of the veranda, two athletic guys my age in khakis burst out of the front doors, braced me up against the wall, and proceeded to indoctrinate me in how to stand (feet at a 45-degree angle, heels together, chest out), speak (ballistically, at the top of my lungs, in the third person) and look (1,000-yard stare).
I took it all very seriously. I would soon learn, though, that an elaborate ritual had just begun and no matter how hard we would try, none of us could do anything right in the eyes of the senior class or the Marine Corps drill instructors they would turn us over to.
After they finished reading me the riot act on the veranda, I walked inside. My suitcase was unceremoniously thrown into a closet and I stood in front of a counter while some other young guy in khakis issued my poopie (new candidate) gear: "One poopie pen!" thrown against the wall behind my head. "One poopie belt buckle!" thrown again.
The rest of my gear got the same treatment while I scrambled to pick it all up. The guy issuing gear told me to sign for my stuff. "Yes sir!" I shouted to which he shouted back, "Candidate, this candidate is not a sir, this candidate is a candidate, does the candidate understand, candidate?"
He shouted back the same line, and confused, I kept shouting back, "Yes sir!" A host of senior classmen in khakis descended on me, declared I was a communist sent to screw up the Navy and then hauled me upstairs to await the arrival of the rest of Class 20 Alpha. There were 72 of us.
Basic training, sir!
The next day we poopies got our heads shaved, and after a week of hilarious (now) initiation, we were introduced to Gunnery Sgt. Kent, a larger-than-life, spit-and-polish black Marine with a gold front tooth. He would teach us discipline, obedience and attention to detail through relentless indoctrination and punitive physical training (PT).
From reveille at 5 a.m. to taps at 10 p.m., Gunnery Sgt. Kent had us doing sit-ups, push-ups, hop-and-pops, leg lifts, and mountain climbers. No matter how fast we did them, it was always, "Too slow. Get back. Push-ups, begin!"
Our class shrank from 72 to 32 after 5 weeks. He was good.
One day, it was all too real
Then one day, we were in the swimming pool playing on the contraptions designed to teach us how to survive if we eject over water. One particular exercise had us jumping off a platform in flight suits and boots and swimming horizontally under water 50 feet to a line on the bottom of the pool.
Several of us swam past the line to the end of the pool to show that we could. Michael Fedie was behind us doing the same thing, when all of a sudden he broke the surface with a gasp. His face was pale gray.
We jumped in and pulled him out, but he was unresponsive and died there. Brain aneurysm. He was a great guy, college football player, and incredible all-around athlete, but the exertion was just the right amount at the wrong time.
We watched him loaded into an ambulance and then put on our khakis, formed up outside, and waited for Gunnery Sgt. Kent to show up to march us back to the battalion. We had just lost a friend, and didn't feel like marching. Our feet weren't at 45-degree angles, chests weren't out and our eyes blurred with tears.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the distinctive Smokey Bear hat approaching our formation and we shouted the prescribed "Good afternoon, sir."
Then the most unexpected thing happened: Kent lit into us with the most violent string of profanity I had ever heard and proceeded to PT us right there on the black asphalt parking lot for our lack of military bearing. We did push-ups, sit-ups and mountain climbers over and over again and he only stopped the thrashing for a few seconds to ask if anyone wanted to quit.
No one did, so he continued to PT us harder until the tears in our eyes became tears of anger. "Just what does he think he is doing?" our eyes asked each other.
Now, we're family
Finally, he ordered us back into formation and said, "This might be the first friend you've lost in this business, but it won't be the last, and if you can't handle it, you might as well quit right now."
We proceeded with the rest of that day's training schedule as if nothing had happened. That night before taps, Kent called us together in our highly polished quarterdeck, stood silently looking at us all for a few minutes and said, "Class 20 Alpha, we're family now… Now get to bed, pigs."
We ended that first summer with 31 guys.