I've shot the breeze over a two-hour dinner with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and stood in Dale Sr.'s pits as he crossed the finish line to win his first and only Daytona 500. I've whacked Buckshot Jones in the face with a whipped-cream pie as he was being interviewed on ESPN, and laughed myself breathless as Buckshot's arch-rival Randy LaJoie explained in great detail the things you can and cannot do with a TENS nerve-stimulating pain-relief unit.
I've watched as Sandi Estep -- my best friend's mom and the woman I call my godmother -- rode in the pace car at Daytona, and then listened as Sandi told me all about it hours later, still as giddily excited as a young schoolgirl. Come to think of it, I've actually driven the pace cars at Homestead and the Madhouse, Bowman Gray Stadium. Several times, I've watched as the sun came up over breakfast at Junior Johnson's shop.
I've stood on the flight deck of two honest-to-goodness Space Shuttles, and peeked in the hatch of a third. I've practiced for two launches and five landings on the Shuttle's motion-base simulator. I've sat alongside former flight controller Bob Carlton at his console in an otherwise empty MOCR as we listened to audio of him helping land Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon.
I watched from just three miles away as a Shuttle rose to orbit for the final time, and stood by on the runway as Endeavour landed to bring an earlier mission to an end.
There's no doubt that my life on the job has been pretty doggone amazing at times. Still, there remains one adventure that's far and away the Number One item on my bucket list.
I would dearly, dearly, dearly love to fly with either the United States Navy's Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds. Take your pick, because beggars can't be choosers. Strapping into either one of those blue-and-yellow or red-white-and-blue birds and soaring off into the wild blue yonder would immediately go to the very top of the list of everything I've ever done in my career, hands down, without a doubt.
Why would a guy like me who absolutely detests flying on board a commercial airliner want to do such a crazy thing? The first reason is also the most obvious. I want to be, for once in my life, That Guy ... the one walking across the tarmac in his flight suit, fully rigged up and ready to climb into his jet fighter, the Top Gun theme music playing in the background.
As silly as that sounds, there are other, more subtle reasons.
Flight was a big part of my dad's life before he got sick with lung cancer, the result of coming in contact with Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam. He told countless stories over the years of the flights he took in the First Cav's Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopters, and after making it back to the States, Dad took to flying remote-controlled planes.
After my mom passed away, he got his private pilot's license and bought an interest in a small plane. We never really talked about it -- we never really talked about a lot of things -- but I think it was his way of dealing with the hurt of losing my mom. He proudly took me for a ride in the machine he'd nicknamed "The Vomit Comet."
When he got sick, he lost his license and could no longer fly. What he could do was return to his hobby of the early 1970s and began building remote-control airplanes with a vengeance. Rarely, if ever, did he take a chance on flying them, but instead contented himself with very patiently building the intricate models.
A yellow Piper Cub he put together had to have had a wingspan that stretched upward of four feet or more. That sucker was huge and the engine in it expensive. I teased him about spending my inheritance, but I actually couldn't have cared less how much it cost. He loved it, it took his mind off what was happening to his body, and that was good enough for me.
So, to fly with the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels ... yeah ... it would be for Pops. Dad was Army through and through, but I don't think he would've minded me hanging out with these particular Navy or Air Force guys too awfully much.
Then there's the fact that I'm now far closer to being physically able to fly with either team.
Five years ago, I weighed nearly 400 pounds and couldn't possibly have squeezed myself into a flight suit, much less the cockpit. I'm reminded of that day in the motion-base simulator, the day that began my weight-loss journey when I was unable to fasten one of my safety harnesses. I'm reminded of the searing pain in my ribs when I tried in vain to suck in my gut enough for the latch to finally snap shut.
It never did, and it broke my heart and very nearly my spirit. I'm reminded of virtually every step of the nearly 2,000 miles I've walked and run since that day, and how badly so many of them have hurt. I've planked, squatted and lunged, Body Pumped and boot camped more times than I could ever count. Walking a 5k led to running one, then running a 10k, then doing both a 5k and a 10k on the same day and last but not least, a half marathon, the mother of all hurts.
The strange thing is, a Blue Angels or Thunderbirds flight would not make all that effort worth it. It was worth it just to get into better shape, to hopefully put myself in a better position to be there for my wife and kids later in life. It would not be a reward, because nobody owes me anything for trying to improve the quality of my own life.
What the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels have done, however, was serve as inspiration. Whether it was some foolish Quixotic quest or not, I've talked myself up many a hill and onward toward many a mile by imaging myself in a Blue Angels F/A-18 or one of the Thunderbirds' F-16s.Would I keep going up this hill or for another few miles if it meant the chance to fly with those folks?
You'd better believe it.
So ... Thunderbirds or Blue Angels, Blue Angels or Thunderbirds ... call me. I'll be here.