Tough memories

A throwback, an admiral, a general ... and Falco. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A little while ago — 32 newsletters ago, in fact — I shared the story of a South Vietnamese air force pilot named Buang-Ly, who stole a single-engine, two-seater airplane during the fall of Saigon, packed it with his wife and five children, and escaped advancing communist forces via a daring landing aboard the USS Midway aircraft carrier.

One of my little down-time work hobbies since then has been to try to track down either Buang-Ly or his family, hopefully to interview them and learn what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story” — what happened once they arrived in the U.S.

(I have a few leads, but no payoffs yet. You never know who might read this article, so if you happen to know them, please pass this along.)

Today, I’d like to talk about another character in that story, as a jumping off point to highlight someone else who marked a big milestone yesterday — both for himself and for the United States.

The “other character” in the Vietnam story is Admiral Lawrence Chambers, who was a Navy captain on April 30, 1975, commanding the Midway. As I wrote two months ago, the only reason Buang-Ly was able to land on the carrier was that Chambers defied orders and cleared the decks, which included pushing about $10 million worth of helicopters over the side:

Chambers, it should be mentioned, had only been captain for a short time, and he was the first African American officer to command an aircraft carrier. He later said he thought he’d be court-martialed for giving the order to push the other aircraft overboard, but that it seemed the right thing to do.

Actually, I don’t want to sidetrack this, but if your interests align at all with mine and you’re looking to delay the start of your workday by another 11 minutes or so, I came across this video from Admiral Chambers (who turns 91 today, I just realized) describing what happened that day.

As you can tell by the face mask hanging off his ear, the retired admiral recorded this only recently.

All of this preamble so far, frankly, is so that I can include an almost heroically measured quote from Chambers about his time at the U.S. Naval Academy.

He was the second black graduate in history, class of 1952, and the first to become an admiral. While I don’t know a single story about his experience there, I suspect something must have gone on, as he did not return to set foot on campus for a full 20 years after graduation.

Here’s what he said about it (.pdf):

“While I had some good memories, I also had some tough memories.”

Good Lord. Find me 12 other subtle words that tell a more expansive story. A black man, only one in his class, training to become an officer in the south beginning in 1948? Yeah, there’s more to that, for sure.

Let’s bring this up to the present. Yesterday, the United States military reached a milestone, in that the U.S. Senate confirmed General C.Q. Brown as the new chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.

Almost 72 years after President Truman desegregated the military for the first time—by the way, the same year Lawrence entered the Naval Academy—a branch of the U.S. military will be led by a black man.

As it happens, I wrote last week for, before I learned that Brown had been nominated for the top Air Force job, about a speech he gave to his last command (Pacific Air Forces), regarding the death of George Floyd.

It’s a short, simple speech, 817 words by my count. It’s a study in authenticity and cadence. Brown starts by saying he suspects that the airmen who work for him probably wonder what he’s thinking, as their leader and as an African-American man.

So, he rolls it all out — roughly 25 sentences, each starting with the same phrase (“I’m thinking about…”), describing what it’s been like to be a trailblazer in the military, while admitting that there are times when he’s fallen short, and that he doesn’t have all the answers.

The speech stood out to me because a number of military people I follow and respect on social media lit it up, and also because it was in contrast to so many bland, boring corporate statements we’ve seen from big companies lately.

Now, I have to admit: I couldn’t have told you who the last Air Force chief of staff was, or probably any of them in history. As a result, I went back and forth on whether this was truly a milestone worth devoting an entire newsletter to.

Maybe we haven’t had a black service chief before, but we’ve had black four-star generals, including Colin Powell, who was the chairman of the joint chiefs.

Not to take away from General Brown, but there’s a funny line that always sticks with me from The Daily Show after the death of the singer Falco (remember Rock Me Amadeus and Der Kommisar?).

The line was something like, “He was one of the most influential gay Austrian pop artists who crossed over onto the U.S. charts during the mid-1980s.”

I mean, there comes a point when the milestones are so narrowly qualified that they get a bit obscure.

But if I’ve (re)learned one thing these past few weeks, it’s that the wounds of racism in our country haven’t healed as quickly as people who look like me might have hoped. And one little thing that we can do is pay attention to events like this.

So, congratulations to General Brown, and Admiral Lawrence, and everyone else who came before them. Let’s hope as we go forward, the good memories can outweigh the tough ones.

7 other things worth your time

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