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Gilbert Hooker, right, with navigator Ron Dunn and F-4 Phantoms, on Hooker's first Vietnam cruise. (Courtesy The Hooker Family)

The Man My Mother Fell in Love With

When the Navy retired the Tomcat, my father went with it.

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The Marine sergeant returns the ID to my father, then snaps to attention with a salute as we exit the checkpoint. Along the grassy entranceway to Virginia Beach’s Naval Air Station Oceana, retired Navy jets stand like grazing cattle. At the head of the herd is an F-14 Tomcat, the jet my father, Commander Gilbert “Hook” Hooker, has known for nearly 30 years. Dad points to an empty space near a set of drab government buildings. Here he spent 16 years instructing “the best of the best” on F-14 flight simulators—which for me, as a kid, were the best video games in the world. The simulators were my father’s last connection to the elite flying community. The simulator complex was demolished when the Navy retired the Tomcat in 2006. Now the land is used for a parking lot. To counter a black market trade in F-14 parts to Iran, the military dismantled most of its Tomcats by the following year.

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“They’ve destroyed them all,” Dad tells me. “It was supposed to retire this year. I was supposed to go when it did.”

“I know,” I say. “You’d still be working right now.”

We are hoping to watch rehearsals for the September 2010 airshow. The air-conditioned viewing room in the operations building would provide the best perspective. But my dad, without saying a word, turns me back at a door that warns: “Essential Operations Personnel Only.” It’s the first time he hasn’t been allowed in the building since he began working here in 1980. Dad lifts a hand to an adjacent fence. The strong forearms I once swung from are weak from age and hairless from the hormone therapy that fights his prostate cancer. “Well, why don’t we head home?” Dad says. We walk back to the parking lot. Years ago, he slapped a sticker on the pickup bumper that reads “I ♥ Jet Noise.” The sticker showed where he stood in a citywide debate. The Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets were far louder than their Hornet predecessors, and many of the city’s new residents began protesting the constant rumble in the homes below. Now even the Oceana airshow, a decades-long tradition, has steered away from the dogfight mentality. The cold war has been over for 20 years. Even if the Tomcat were still flying, it would have nothing to chase.

In 1976, my family moved to Virginia Beach. Back then, half the city was farmland. The house my parents built was nestled in a tidal forest abutting endless rows of corn and wheat. To get to a grocery store, we drove over half an hour. Dad had landed here shortly before he left active duty. The new assignment, a reservist post, was soon leading him into a career dead-end. He handed in his resignation letter and eventually found a job as an instructor with Grumman, the maker of the Tomcat. The assignment: Teach Iranians to fly the F-14. My mother, with two children in tow and pregnant with me, prepared the family for the move to Tehran. Then plans changed: The last shah of Iran was overthrown. We remained in Virginia.

One night at the old house, Dad and I stay up after Mom goes to bed. We talk about the Navy. He’s a couple of whiskeys in when he mentions Vietnam. He repeats himself often and occasionally mumbles.

On the F-4 Phantom, which he flew in Vietnam, the pilot would hit a button to extend the nose gear strut. “At night you’re sitting on the deck there and all of a sudden your nose goes up a foot and a half. You’re looking up at the sky. You’re thinking beforehand: Man, I hope this works. Man, I hope this works. And BOOM! I mean, it curls your socks up. It was a violent shot.” Dad’s the most energetic when reliving flying days during these late-night talks. We’ve had this conversation at least three times now. Still, I’m glad he’s talking with me.

“And you couldn’t get your head off the headrest if you wanted to,” he continues. “It lasts just a couple seconds and you’re flying. The nose pops up quickly and so you’ve got to ram the stick forward to stop it or it’s an over-rotation. You’re 60 feet off the water at that point and it’s dark out there. That gets your attention.”

In photos from this era, he’s grinning, showing the chip in his front tooth. His sideburns are long and his hair and mustache are black. He’s the skinny man my mother fell in love with, wearing a green jumpsuit spotted with squadron patches. A white flight helmet is under one arm. His navigator, Ron Dunn, stands next to him. Over their shoulders, the nose of an F-4 nudges into the snapshot.

When the war ended, Dad returned to his wife. With combat ops over, the Navy no longer needed as many pilots. If he were lucky, Dad was told, he’d be reassigned as a catapult officer. He was preparing his resignation when he found a position with a squadron in Virginia Beach. Ten months later, he was heading to Germany to meet the new squadron as it was completing a cruise and returning to Virginia. There he was introduced to the Tomcat.

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