Thursday, March 16, 2017


Just a year before the movie Top Gun was released, when I was seven or eight years old, my uncle Bob wrote a book. It was called Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering. Published by the Naval Institute Press, this is the modern textbook for air combat maneuvering - dogfighting, as they call it in the movie. I remember when he brought my dad a signed copy as a present for some occasion. Well, I was a young and impressionable young man, and I thought this was a pretty cool book. Then I saw Top Gun at the movie theater, found out My Uncle Bob was a TOP GUN graduate, and decided that all of this was in fact pretty damn cool.

Bob was my dad's older brother, and never really lived close to us. We visited him once in California, and many times in Ohio where he lived until recently, and on annual family vacations at the beach, to Hilton Head Island and Pawley's Island. His fighter pilot callsign was Mouse - a name that fit him well, as he was all of about 5'4" tall. One hot summer day on the basketball court, probably around the time my grandfather Jupe passed away, I learned that you don't have to be very tall to kick someone's ass in basketball. Bob had a lot of hustle. And sharp elbows.

Bob passed away yesterday, after a long tough fight with cancer. I know it dragged him down at the end, and that it could not have been easy to live with for these many years. I was fortunate to spend a weekend in Jacksonville NC with Bob this fall, and it was nice to catch up. I'm pretty sure that, even though the cancer eventually won, it probably took an elbow or two on the chin during the process. Lot of hustle.

My favorite ejection seat tester, and general
all-around great American fighter pilot, Mouse

Bob was a fighter pilot. He got married in his Navy whites with a sword arch and everything, got winged in 1972, and cut his teeth flying F-4 Phantoms. He attended TOP GUN, transitioned to the F-14 Tomcat, and cruised on the USS Kitty Hawk, CV-63 (named in honor of the location of the Wright Brothers' first powered human flight in North Carolina's Outer Banks). Later, after several years in the Navy Reserve with VF-301, he moved to Dayton, Ohio and transferred to the Air Force Reserves. He got to fly F-16 Falcons then. That's a pretty good collection of stick time, in some pretty impressive aircraft.

At one point, Bob co-owned the world speed record from St. Louis, MO to Cincinnati, OH. He made the trip in a McDonnell Douglas F-4D, top speed of Mach 2.2, in a time of just 17 minutes and 9 seconds (average Mach 1.4). For reference, it would take your standard personal automobile more than 5 hours to make that 300+ mile trip. A few years later, on its final flight prior to retirement, some assholes flying the SR-71 Blackbird broke Bob's record. Only took them 8 and half minutes, traveling at nearly 3 times the speed of sound. I wish they'd gone a different way.

I remember being at the beach in the late summer of 1990. You may not recall what was going on that summer, but we were in the process of moving about 600,000 troops into Saudi Arabia, and were about to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. For a week or more at Pawley's Island n August or September, we couldn't get Bob off the couch and couldn't watch anything other than CNN's 24-hour news coverage on the TV. Now, years later and a former military professional myself, I sometimes feel a lot like Bob must have that fall, watching everyone ship over, gear up, and whip it on. Interestingly, I learned that a buddy of mine from later years in the Marine Corps was a young Marine communications sergeant stationed at the Kuwaiti US embassy that summer and was an Iraqi POW for several months. Another fine Marine I served with was the 81's FDC chief with 2/5 at the same time. I was 12 and watching on TV.

Since then, I've been lucky to throw a beer or two back from time to time at the USMC's Center House, the officer's club at the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps at Marine Barracks Eighth and Eye. Once, in 2003, I got to meet Commandant Hagee and a few other particularly important people. I was standing there, brand new uniform and butter bars and everything, in what effectively was the sitting room / library of the Commandant's personal bar. I glanced over at the built-in bookcase on one wall, right next to the Commandant, and there positioned prominently on display was a copy of Bob's book Fighter Combat. I admit I puffed up a little bit with pride. Even a dumb grunt knows when he's in good company.

Through the years, and through a lot of little revelations like these, I learned I had more in common with my Uncle Bob than just my Y chromosomes and last name. Bob attended Purdue in the late sixties, and was a coxswain on the Purdue Crew. Years later, I went to Chapel Hill and rowed for Carolina - we raced Purdue's Boilermaker Crew several times. Bob and I are the only two of our Shaw family, as far as I know (absent Doc, who married in), to have had the fine privilege of racing an intercollegiate eight-oared rowing shell.

*  *  *

By way of elegy, I'll invoke the timeless words of another fighter pilot-turned-author, the poem High Flight by RAF Spitfire driver John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Fair winds and following seas, Mouse.

In memoriam: LtCol (Ret.) Robert L. Shaw, USAFR (1947-2017).

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