For several mornings in a row, I woke to the same conversation coming from the landing outside my bedroom:
“Owen, get my back. Get my back!”
“Got it. The enemy’s on my tail.”
“Hard right! Hard right!”
“I see him. I’m locking in. Got ‘em.”
“There’s another one. Locking in.”
“He’s on my tail.”
The boys were playing a Nintendo Wii game called “World War II Aces.” Using the handheld remote, they led historical aircraft through maneuvers on famed missions. Even Lindell, 5, was learning pilot-talk. The first time I saw him use his hands to demonstrate how a plane banked left, I knew—it was time to show them Top Gun. (Well, not all of Top Gun; I’d need to fast-forward through that scene.)
I put the DVD in the machine, and when the title screen came on, the first notes of Kenny Loggin’s iconic “Danger Zone” playing against the whistle and wind of jet noise, the entire 1980s washed over me. I felt like I might even smell the old perm in my hair.
The boys stared at the television, their mouths hung open. This is when I knew they needed some background information.
I paused the DVD. “Okay, first,” I said, “you should know that this is what I grew up with. Pop, your grandfather, was an F-14 pilot. What you’re about to see is what he did for work when I was a kid. He even went to the famous Top Gun school.”
“Pop?” Owen said, the corners of his mouth turning up in a smile.
“My Pop?” Lindell asked.
“Yes. But there’s more.” I reminded the boys of the aircraft carriers I grew-up on and around in Norfolk, Virginia.
“They were like Pop’s office, right?” Owen said.
“Yes, we remember,” Ford said, his impatience audible. “The smell of jet fuel reminds you of being a kid. What else? Can we watch now?”
“You’re going to see an aircraft carrier in this movie. It’s the same one your dad was on during his first deployment. He and Pop were actually on it together at one point.”
The boys’ minds had just been blown. As I realized that I had even more to tell them, I wondered what took me so long to show them this movie.
“Can we watch now?” Ford asked.
I pushed play and said what I thought was an aside, “Also, people say the main character, Maverick, looks a lot like your dad.”
Owen put his hand over his mouth. “Does Maverick die? I don’t want to watch if Maverick dies.”
That’s when I remembered that Goose dies. I was having second thoughts. But the other boys were already enthralled with the F-14 catapulting off the flight deck. Owen put his hand down and said, “These are real planes? They look so futuristic.”
“That’s probably because we’ve been staring at WWII planes on the game,” Ford said.
I debated about whether to tell them that the F-14 is indeed outdated now, too, replaced by the F-18.
“I can’t imagine Pop flying that,” Ford said.
“Yeah, I can’t imagine an old man flying that plane,” Lindell said.
I laughed. “Well, he wasn’t old back then,” I said.
After Maverick landed his plane and took off his helmet, the boys gasped. “He does look like Dad,” Ford said.
“I can’t watch this if he dies,” Owen said.
The boys stood to get closer to the screen. “His mouth, it looks just like Dad,” Lindell said.
“And that expression,” Ford yelled, pointing at the screen. “That, right there, looks just like him.”
It became difficult to follow the storyline because the boys had so many questions: Was I born when Pop went to Top Gun? No. Has Dad (Dustin) ever rescued pilots out of the water in the helicopter? Yes. Did I ever ride in an F-14? No. But I did watch Pop break the sound barrier once.
The boys continued to recognize their Dad’s expressions in Maverick’s face. It was almost as if they wanted to touch the screen to be near him, and that made me unspeakably sad.
Then the scene came where Goose dies. The room grew quiet. On the screen, Maverick packed up Goose’s belongings and took them to Meg Ryan, who played Goose’s wife.
“I don’t think I can watch this,” Owen said.
“Owen,” Ford sighed. “The one who died doesn’t look like dad.”
“Still,” Owen said. “So many things in the Navy are dangerous. I mean, Goose was just practicing, and he died.”
I had no good response for this. All I could do was nod and rub the hair away from Owen’s forehead.
Next, there were “ewws” and fake vomiting when Maverick and Charlie (Kelly McGillis) kissed on screen. This seemed to replace all the heavy thoughts from before. The boys went to bed and said very little more about Top Gun.
The next day, however, all those stories I had told them, having percolated overnight, grew and become distorted. I overheard Owen telling a neighbor, “My Pop went to Top Gun and was the best fighter pilot that ever lived. He breaks the sound barrier all the time. He was better than Tom Cruise.”
Hey, Old Man—you’re welcome.