Memories from the San Joaquin Valley

A bit of background: On December 7, 1988, I reported to my first U.S. Navy fleet duty station: Attack Squadron 22 (VA-22), “The Fighting Redcocks,”  based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, California. The squadron has since been redesignated as Strike Fighter Squadron 22 (VFA-22), but the Fighting Redcocks remain based at NAS Lemoore, the Navy’s west coast premier air station and home to Strike Fighter Wing (formerly Light Attack Wing) – Pacific. The Naval Air Station is located on California Hwy 198, a few miles west of the town of Lemoore in Kings County. It is approximately a 30-minute drive to Fresno, in the heart of California’s central valley. Each winter (at that time) a thick blanket of fog would settle into the valley, probably due to a reaction between the relatively mild winter temperatures and the colder air blowing in from the Pacific: San Francisco on an enormous scale.

At that time, almost all of the squadrons at NAS Lemoore flew the same type of aircraft: the A-7E Corsair II, a carrier-based light bomber. Although the A-7E was capable of flying missions in all weather, the extremely poor visibility at Lemoore was deemed an unnecessary risk for training flights. As a result, we spent 4 or 5 months out of the year playing cards. As I had arrived near the beginning of a particularly long foggy season, I literally did not know what my base looked like for the first 6 months I was there. I could not see a person standing three feet away from me. A shuttle bus ran between the administrative area of the base, where our barracks was located, to the more restricted operations area a few miles away. My new shipmates helped me by making sure I knew which direction the bus stop was and how many paces as I walked out of the barracks. They did the same for the enlisted club, the operations mess hall, and the brightly-lit, but still invisible, McDonald’s directly across the street from Barracks 12, which our squadron called home. I could get to work, food, and alcohol. The necessities having been taken care of, the rest would have to wait for spring.

I have always loved the beauty of the outdoors. The following is a post about some of my memories (caveat: from 21 years ago, but still as vivid as yesterday) about my first spring after the fog finally lifted. It was previously posted on my Facebook page, and it meant enough to me that I wanted to preserve it. It has been edited slightly from the original post for contextual reasons.

I still remember working nights, and the sun coming up directly in my eyes on the way home as it rose over the Sierra Nevada around 9am, an hour or more after “sunrise” and the first time I ever saw the peaks of the area of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks from Visalia. I had arrived at Lemoore in the middle of the fog, and after it finally lifted, I just assumed they were clouds for weeks afterwards. Nothing east of the Mississippi is that high in the sky except clouds or aircraft vapor trails.One day something made me just stand there and watch them – always in the same place and never drifting.

That’s one of the (few) things I loved about NAS Lemoore in summer – I could see from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, over the Coalinga Hills to the Coast Ranges. That and the friggin jackrabbits. We used to have to hop into trucks and chase the jackrabbits and coyotes off the runways and taxiways so that we could conduct flight ops. You’d think a big, loud A-7 or F/A-18 coming toward them would have been as much of a clue as a grey truck. Of course WE had 54mm flare guns. I don’t advocate setting coyotes on fire with red flares, but this was the Cold War, and as exhilarating as it was to be the tip of the spear, we knew who the adversary was, and he had a spear, too. Although if we were “on the beach,” we were training, rather than in an operational role, but we took our jobs no less seriously than those who maintained and flew the B-52s with the white undersides or the Air Force Strategic Air Command tankers that supported them. If you’ve lived long enough to remember the Berlin Wall, hopefully you can understand that there was no such thing as a “just practicing” mentality at that point in the history or our Armed Forces. Nor should there ever be.

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