Is the dream really all that? As with all things, it depends. Some thoughts on living the overdrive life
In the early seventies I joined the Army. As a young enlisted woman of 21, I was ready for anything, and like so many at that age I had huge dreams. I wanted to fly fighter jets, above all things. That dream was impossible back in 1973.
It would take another twenty years before women would be allowed to fly in combat, and at that point I'd be leaving the service, not just getting my start.
By the time I finally realized, after all my inquiries, that this particular dream of badassery was dead before it left the ground, I'd already started skydiving. That was my first big sport, encouraged by a young captain who worked in my Washington D.C.-based Public Information Office.
I was hooked on sky sports in 1973, and there was no turning back. Flying, moving fast, the wind in my face on horseback or cycling, for example, all make the bird in my chest sing.
For those who have ever kissed the sky, you can relate. The feeling of flying your body transforms your notions of who and what you can be.
My military career was short, particularly when it became patently obvious that a Top Gun dream hadn't chosen me. I had no idea at the time that such a school even existed. All I knew was that as a military woman in the early Seventies, no fighter jets for me.
How times have changed. This is who I most desperately wanted to be:
Some of my closest friends flew in the military years after I left. I don't envy them one bit; I am delighted and proud for them. And I also know this: If I thought I had to fight horrific battles in the service, imagine the supercharged, testosterone-fueled environment of Top Gun, when the language of dominance is to screw someone who threatens your manhood. That happened to LtCol Martha McSally, the first woman to fly combat missions.
I also am a military sexual assault survivor, but unlike so many brave survivors, I didn't report being sexually assaulted. Like so many women and men, I didn't trust the system at the time. I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways. In one case I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.
You will forgive me but the use of "superior" here is a miscue. Senior officer, yes. Superior, not on your life. Inferior, indeed. But I digress.
There are huge prices to pay to be any kind of badass but when you add female and military, and especially race to the mix, it often gets ugly. Men will protect the territory that testosterone loves, claiming it solely theirs. This is elevated ground.
But we belong there, too.
Anyone belongs in a Top Gun kind of life IF, big IF, you are willing to do the work to get there.
I dated a flight instructor in the 1970s who got me into basic pilot ground, and I started putting in the hours. Then I took a sidestep and discovered skydiving. That gave me the adrenaline rush I was hungry for. Not long afterwards I jumped ship out of the cockpit and spent more time at the drop zone.
I love being in the air. I love going fast. I was a natural for a Top Gun kinda life.
If fighter jets weren't in my future, then I would find other ways to feel like a serious badass by doing what I loved.
Top Gun, the first one, came out in 1986, eight years after I left the Army. At the time I was living in Australia. And wouldn't you have it: I was learning to fly ultralights in the small town of Geelong.
Granted, flying an open cockpit putt-putt like a Gemini Thruster isn't exactly meeting the need for speed. But I was flying, and I got good at it. I was awarded an ulralight pilot license in Australia, now long lost to time, back in 1985.
I had at least achieved part of my dream, to fly solo.
Who is your tribe? That helps define where you belong. Watching Top Gun underscored for me that I was not the simpering girlfriend on the sidelines. Not this girl. I wanted the joystick in MY hands, doing a controlled spin. Did more than one of them too, one in Australia and again off the New Zealand coast with an acrobatics instructor.
I am vastly more at home with the people who inhabit the cockpits. That is my tribe. I didn't want to date the pilots. I wanted to be one. Always been that way.
Like so many I was ahead of my time. These days, females in the cockpit are normal, from fighter jets to jetliners. While there have always been women doing extraordinary things -mostly forgotten and largely unsung like my muse Beryl Markham- today they are much more common.
These days I do everything from climb big mountains, ride horses all over the world, kayak the Arctic, you name it. All after sixty. My life is full of badassery, much of it done not particularly well (I am ridiculously clumsy, hence my comedic material).
I am living a Top Gun life, full of speed and exhilaration and joy.
Along with the injuries and hilarity and the extraordinary confidence that comes of being tested very hard and not found wanting.
For example I just completed a nine day horse riding trip- a very difficult one at that- in Chile's vast Atacama Desert with a fractured kneecap and other bone injuries which happened literally minutes before getting on my horse. I did the ride anyway and nobody ever knew how much pain I was in.
Tested and not found wanting. That is part of a Top Gun life. Dealing with the awful failures, the fumbles and farts and faceplants that come with effort.
I am also friends with women my age who are also pilots and scuba divers- far better than I will ever be- and adventurers and so very much more. Those women keep me inspired to keep after it.
What does it take? Focus, sacrifice, and very hard work, for starters.
I saw the new Top Gun movie while en route to yet another adventure in the world. It was one hell of a motivator to consider returning to flying.
By the way, the original movie did inspire a true Top Gun hero, probably many more than just one. Here's the real thing, just in case you were curious:
Just as with the NFL, the NBA and MLB, very, very few people ever make it to this level. And despite the movie's emphasis on the characters' strutting and arrogance, that isn't going to work.
Here's what the Department of Defense has to say about it:
In the original "Top Gun" movie, arrogance was not lacking in any of the characters. But today's instructors say that's far from reality - in fact, it's frowned upon. The school looks for three personality traits in every student and instructor: Credibility, approachability and humility. "As I teach you, I'm trying to get better, too. So I have to have that humble demeanor in order to make everybody better," Peverill said. "A cocky demeanor just shuts everybody down, and it would be a huge disservice to the school." While the cockiness might be a myth, the competitiveness is not! (author bolded)
This quote underscores what I've learned from years of adventure sports, pushing myself to try all manner of risky ventures from leaping off bridges and cliffs to scuba diving with hammerheads: arrogance can get you killed.
It also endangers everyone around you.
I've seen that behavior in skydiving, flying, bungee jumping, kayaking, horse riding, all those sports all over the world. Arrogance and a complete lack of respect not only for the sport but also for the conditions, which is worse. There is always a contingent of self-proclaimed badasses who honestly believe that hubris counts more than training and preparation.
They get carted off the same mountains that I have safely summitted by the thousands every year. They continue to die on approach or the descent on Everest every year, people with more hubris than humility, and too much money which in those cases, only purchases them a fancy place to end up frozen to death. In fact, the people most likely to fail on these big summits are young, fit males.
That's not being badass. That's. Just. Stupid. Not my tribe.
That's a Slop Gun, not a Top Gun. The world is full of wanna-bes. The real thing is deeply humbled by the challenge, trains for it, and submits to the fact they may not make it out alive.
This morning I stumbled on a remarkable story:
Hillary, who was bedeviled by poverty, racism and lung cancer, decided to trek to the ends of the earth. She was 74 when she made that decision. She prepared assiduously, and achieved her goals. She is one of my new sheroes.
Why? Because she STARTED at 74.
Badassery doesn't have an age. It only has an attitude.
I bought Top Gun Maverick the moment it was available. Had it playing over and over again on Saturday. I still don't buy into the arrogance. I do buy into the hard work, the preparation.
And I deeply respect Tom Cruise, who, at sixty, still does most of his own stunts, flies and works incredibly hard to stay fit and engaged.
You and I do not have to be a rich movie star to have that life. We do not have to be a top athlete, an Olympian, to feel like a Top Gun.
For this reason alone: what being a "Top Gun" looks like for you is as unique as a fingerprint.
I have a friend here in Eugene who, not long ago, wrote me that she was getting a knee replacement so that she could "keep kicking." Chris is around my age. We went hiking once; Chris is a fellow Kilimanjaro climber (and yes, she summitted). She's full of energy and verve and enthusiasm for life, which is why I appreciate her so much.
She's one of the few older folks I know who hikes as assertively and fearlessly as I do. (I doubt she trips as much as I do. There's that.)
What makes badassery? This:When I got back from The Atacama Desert where I cranked my left knee (and am now headed into surgery for a left foot so that I too could "keep kicking") I called Chris.
Chris has her new knee and is four weeks out, pushing it to heal, to work, to bend, and to power through the inevitable scar tissue.
Chris has the Dolomites to hike.
And a lot more after that. She's just getting revved back up. At our age there is no time to lose, and surgery recovery is hard work.
In one day I will have a repaired foot (two down of four repairs) and I too, will be pushing through post-surgery pain and PT.
I also have mountains to hike, horses to ride, and clouds to explore.
In Thailand recently was reminded of how much I've missed flying. There's no reason not to return to finish what I began decades ago. I don't want to do it tandem. I want to go back to flying solo.
Recently I reinstated my parachuting license. Why not return to flying?
Why not try something completely new?
You will start out as a rookie, as do we all. You will be sloppy, clumsy, awkward. But if you are willing to put in the time, training, practice and discipline, it might just come.
A Top Gun kind of life is earned.
How you personally define badassery is unique to you. What's also unique to you is your willingness to find something, some dream you are willing to chase. If that one doesn't work out, pick another that is just as challenging. Some lives don't choose you back, either because you and I don't have the skills or the athletic ability.
But other lives still await. Don't believe me?
It's up to us to find out what version of a Top Gun life appeals and works for us, if that is what speaks to our souls.
Barbara Hillary launched her adventure at 74. She had health issues and had never done anything even remotely like it. She was willing to do the work, get in shape and take the risk.
What's your excuse? Or, better yet? What makes the bird in your chest sing?
Let's find out.
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