Lieutenant Ariel Mark Klainerman’07, my brother, received his wings last Saturday. He stood on a long podium along with three classmates, all wearing dashing white uniforms and all flanked by adoring family members. Appropriately for the Navy, rain was coming down in torrents. The aviators, fresh from their first landing on a carrier out at sea, were perfectly at ease in the storm, and stared resolutely into the multicolored mass of shivering ponchos and umbrellas.
From my prime position in the ranks of the aviators’ friends and family, I stood in the most eager attention; I wanted to justify the 8-hour long drive from Princeton to the base in Norfolk, Virginia by really understanding the event. My decision to go had been of the last minute, after days of wavering. My hesitation was mostly due to the daunting journey ahead of me—and the consequent loss of valuable homework hours. It also had to do with my utter unfamiliarity with and ignorance of all things military; I had no idea what to expect from a “winging ceremony”, and even less from an airshow. When I finally decided to go, I resolved to observe the event with both objectivity and a sense of adventure, the approach appropriate for a newcomer.
Above me, through sheets of blinding rain, an announcer—as impervious to the rain as the soldiers below him—guided the crowd through the proceedings, from describing the biographies of the graduates to explaining the importance of repeating the national anthem at events. His instructional shouts about the reliability and patriotism of Verizon Wireless were followed by inspirational messages: “it is the soldier, and not the reporter who guarantees our freedom of speech; it is the soldier, and not the politician, who safeguards our democracy.” Below the podium, the 5th-in-command Naval admiral, a small man, presented a joy-stick-shaped trophy to the graduate with the highest GPA of the class. Names were called, hands were shaken, golden wings were pinned onto white, polyester jackets, and soon the newly-christened pilots filed off the platform in time for a local fourteen-year-old to sing the national anthem in a disturbingly seductive timbre. After hugs from mothers and pats on the back from awkward fathers, the graduates moved from the inner circle of intimates to less familiar crowds clustered behind low fences. I watched Lt. Klainerman get flagged down by a wide-eyed pre-teen he had met in the airport in Norfolk. The boy was temporarily made mute by excitement and timidity, so I listened to his parents explain how he had begged them to attend the winging in order to witness his newfound hero’s crowning moment—how the iPhone shaking in their son’s hand was meant to receive my brother’s contact information. Partially amused, mostly surprised, and surprisingly slightly scornful,I had never before seen such a show of admiration towards my big brother, or any soldier for that matter.
Someone told me that this year’s Virginia Beach’s annual naval airshow was especially momentous, as it marked the anniversary of 100 years of naval aviation. I hadn’t known. Klainerman’s class was divided in two, to inspire crowds with graduations on both days of the show. Every size, shape, and model of helicopter and jet planes was there, flown in from across the country for display. Family members strolled through bright yellow T6 Texans and had their pictures taken in the cockpits of imposing mh53 helicopters on their way to VIP tents. To my hungry but health-conscious stomach’s dismay, the buffet tables inside were full of hot plates of fried chicken, hotdogs, pasta salad, and chips with melted nacho cheese. White uniforms mingled with plebeian garb, and stiffened around superior green jumpsuits. When tummies were filled and tongues loosened with Coors Lite, we all shuffled outside the tent to watch F/A-16s wiz around like supersonic paper planes and to listen to the announcer’s increasingly technical verbiage.
The av-8b Harrier cruised into view. Powerfully and with absolute self-control, it slowed down into a perfect hover right in front of the VIPs—the ultimate stare-down. It glided elegantly from left to right and then backwards, fading slowly into the dark clouds. Next, the F/A-18 Hornet tore through the calm, zipping and zooming and whirling around the grey sky, bringing with it a terrifying rumble that shook the sternum ten times more than the most pounding bass. For its final act, the Hornet sped into a mad dash; and suddenly, there broke an ear-splitting bang as the air shot on the surface of the speeding plane reached the speed of sound and burst into a dark grey cloud which formed the most enviable airy tutu around its waist. Only the shrillest of “oohs” and “ahhs” broke through the protective yellow gauze of earplugs.
I hung on the fences separating the crowd from the runways and watched, with real admiration, several of the greatest engineering marvels of the century parade before my eyes. My thoughts immediately returned to Princeton. I wondered why these innovations of genius are never celebrated and never even mentioned. My utter ignorance of these tremendous aircrafts, their utter novelty, made me feel uncomfortable. This feeling extended to many other aspects of the ceremony as well. Differences of lifestyle were immediately apparent in the super-size of the people around me, in the lack of green on the buffet table, in the very environment of a naval airshow on a Saturday afternoon. I was also growing aware of the less tangible differences of lifestyle. Despite the oppressive gloom that descended upon us with the increasingly tempestuous rain, the crowd had come to applaud and support the soldiers. The number of handshakes and congratulations my brother received that day attests to his heroic, impressive stature in their eyes.
This difference returned me to my earlier comparisons. Would such display of support for men in uniform ever occur Princeton? I certainly have never witnessed any. I know extremely little about the military and without my personal connection to the Navy, I would know even less. Princeton students seem, for the most part, completely detached from the military. Whereas spectators at the winging drove, and even flew, many miles to celebrate their men in uniform, students at Princeton barely acknowledge the existence of ROTC on their own campus. My brother was in ROTC and yet what I’ve heard about it from him hardly makes it seem less of some kind of secret, underground society. Sighting camouflage on campus is as rare, and as surprising, as encountering a fellow math major out on a Saturday night.
In my circles and in most, the military is never mentioned, never considered as a career; in short, it is entirely forgotten. But “forgotten” may be over-simplifying the situation. Are our attitudes towards the military truly those of indifference? Ever since military recruitment programs left college campuses in the swirl of the Vietnam War—to focus their attention more fruitfully on more receptive students—the military and civil America’s intellectual elite have grown ever more distant and seemingly incompatible. An unfortunate consequence of this, and one that I regretfully noticed in my own attitude, is that we now tend to associate the military with a different class of Americans. Whereas in the past all young and healthy men had to confront the reality of military service at some point in their lives, the college-educated can escape the difficult choice and responsibility entirely—if he so chooses. My reaction to the ceremony was evidence itself for the stereotype surrounding Ivy League schools and their typically condescending attitudes towards all that is not made of ivy. The military’s estrangement from America’s elite campuses undoubtedly fuels this condescension.
Back in the VIP tent, as I stood paralyzed by tremendous noises and stupendous sights, I thought more about my own feelings regarding the military. It was with the greatest embarrassment that I recognized in myself symptoms of my own elitism, in my smug observations and general aloofness. In these unfamiliar surroundings, I couldn’t help but feel alienated from everyone around me. I also felt guilty for having been so perceptive of these elusive sentiments. My brother’s graduation had allowed me to escape from the secluded confines of the Orange Bubble. It gave me some distance to evaluate that distance and its attendant conventional attitudes, the calcified edges of which crumbled in the flaming trail of the incredible jet planes overhead.