Most of us have never had an air superiority fighter strafe us during a gun run. I would venture that most of us would not care to have that happen to us—not at all. Even a simulated gun run is a trouser-crapable event, especially if it catches you by surprise. Such was the case with my crew and me at the Nevada Test Site.
The test site was where my next career began following my service with the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. On this day I led a group of nuclear scientists and support crew to the northwesternmost corner of the test site, where an above-ground nuclear detonation—called Schooner—had taken place years ago.
The objective for the following two days was to collect radioactive soil samples containing post-blast byproducts at regular intervals across a swath of ground. Please don’t ask me to explain anything beyond that. Most of the nutty experiments that nuclear scientists dream up push my brain to near-vapor lock.
I hadn’t really signed on for collecting dirt samples in tiny plastic pipets for two days, but I fancy myself one who rises to the nation’s causes at every opportunity. “I shall collect this dirt and put it into tiny pipets to the best of my mortal ability,” I told myself as I paired up with another scientist to work as a team.
“So how did we want to dig this hole?” the doctor—who I called Daktari—inquired.
“With this trowel that Dr. Joyce gave me?” Dr. Joyce was the task leader who had developed the experiment and presented it to Sandia National Laboratories. She set up shop on the tailgate of a pickup truck we brought and waited for dirt.
“No, I mean do we want to dig straight down to depth for our sample, or do we want to sneak up on it from an oblique angle?”
Glancing around for a sharp stick to jam in my eye, I answered, “Look, Daktari, I don’t want to dig any holes at all, Ann Frankly, I hadn’t planned on getting as scientific as you over digging a hole in some dirt. What say we just take the direct approach and go straight down?”
An interesting thing about these 100-pound heads—nuclear physicists and rocket scientists—is that they don’t get offended easily. It’s like they’re too smart to get offended by the petty misbehaving of a chunk of ice from the Early Pleistocene whose welterweight cranium only ever weighed in at 88-ish pounds.
“Hey, Daktari, this is kinda fun. Can you dig it?”
Daktari returned a gaze that was every bit as enthusiastic as that of a slumbering sloth. Another thing about these geniuses: They had a strange sense of humor. They were not as pie-in-the-face as much of my material. It seemed like jokes required at least the first three dimensional planes of the Space-time Continuum before they would decide if they would give it any of their fourth-dimension time.
I looked around. The Nevada Test and Training Range was about five miles to our north. Fast-movers (fighter jets) maneuvered in the distance, twisting and writhing in various patterns. I could just barely see that they were F-16 Fighting Falcons. If ever a jet truly physically resembled its name, it was the F-16.
“Howz by yooz, Dr. Joyce?” I playfully inquired as I took a break from ol’ happy there, overthinking his six-inch dirt dive. It was good to check around to account for everyone and what they were doing. Visitors were not permitted in these remote areas unsupervised. There was just too much crap (radiological contamination) and too many opportunities to get into dire straits on these atomic bombing ranges.
On that note, I am quite certain the next time someone asks me if I glow at night as a result of exposure to this radiation, I shall immediately and without qualm or reservation shatter their pelvis and let them bleed out slowly through their anus. All apologies, but that is simply how I feel about it.
Dr. Joyce had racks and racks of small metal stands arranged on the truck’s tailgate, into which she had placed rows of pipets. She carefully recorded each one in her growing ledger. She was definitely invested in her program and well organized. It was completely admirable by my estimation.
“Nice racks, Doc.”
“The racks. They’re nice. How they each can organize 10 pipets in a row like that…it’s…nice.”
“Oh, well yeah, I guess.”
Being the social white dog turd that I was, I felt it more advantageous to the project to return to the dig with chuckles. The hours wore on and the urge to sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or “99 Bottles of Beer” became almost overpowering.
Then it happened.
I stood with a man from the other dig team some 20 meters to the west side of the truck, answering some trivial questions. I was facing the truck as we chatted. Beyond the truck where Dr. Joyce toiled was a low ridge about 2,000 meters away.
Suddenly a motion just over the ridge caught my eye. I recognized instantly that it was an F-16. It had, in a split second, popped over the top of the ridge and dove toward us, low and at breakneck speed. I opened my mouth to shout a warning—GUNS, GUNS, GUNS—but the jet closed too quickly.
I only had time to slam my palms against my ears. Though there was no noise yet, I knew the roar would be ear-shattering when it came. And it came. My vision blurred a bit as the jet swooped overhead, blotting the sun for an instant. Then the roar of the engines came crashing down on us.
I just managed to jet (no pun) a glance at Dr. Joyce’s face as the sonic crash completely trashed her racks of pipets. She wore an expression as though she had just been zapped by a fallen power line. The entire crew was in shock and completely petrified.
The falcon went immediately nose up and launched itself vertically, corkscrewing in a victory roll as it climbed. I extended both my arms up toward the jet shooting him the double-digit epithet until he was just a pinpoint in the sky.
“We’re dead. That jet just killed us.” I grinned at all the eyes that were on me. Dr. Joyce’s mouth would not actually close again for the next couple of days. None of her soil sample pipets had actually opened, spilling contents, and her sterling record-keeping enabled her to quickly restore her world order on the tailgate of the truck.
The F-16 circled back at a greatly reduced speed, passing very low above our position, this time wing-walking in salutation. I raised my arms again, but with fingers extended in V-for-victory symbols of peace toward our murderers. Many months later the jet’s gun camera footage made it to my management and I was gifted a viewing. There I stood, double peace signs extended, looking like former POTUS Richard Milhous Nixon.
It was good to be king even for a day, even if only of a swath of radioactive dirt.
Dr. Joyce…oh, brother. The first thing she said to me the next morning was, “OMG, I still can’t get over that jet yesterday. It was just the most amazing thing I’m sure I’ve ever experienced.” She confided that she awoke during the night thinking of that event, and it was again the first thing she thought of when she woke up. I appreciated and was pleased by her outlook.
I dropped them off at their accommodations for the last time. We bid each other goodbye.
Daktari gave me the thumbs-up signal. “Thanks for everything, Geo. Take care, and don’t do anything stupid!”
“No worries, Daktari. My mind doesn’t really even function in that…dementia.”
He shot a glance back and chuckled. “Good one. Not bad!” The day had not been lost.
Later, I studied a topographical map of our location and postulated that the F-16 had very likely dropped into a canyon far south of our location and followed that contour before busting out of the canyon and turning west toward our shallow ridgeline. There, the pilot recognized his target would lie some 2,000 meters west from the crest of the ridge.
And that, mes amis, is the very essence of our nation’s badass Air Force.
By almighty God and with honor,