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A Grin at the End: Everything I ever needed to know – I learned from Top Gun

carl sampson

Like many 20-year-olds, I am prime-time in love with the movie Top Gun. I always have been and the fact that a sequel just came out has made my year. It is my nominee for Best Movie of the Year at the Oscars, and I haven’t even seen it.

My problem – if you want to call it that – is that I’m not 20. Even when the original Top Gun came out in 1986, I was, um, not 20. I found myself sitting in a movie theater in Juneau, Alaska, surrounded by teenagers.

If the Navy had put a recruiting booth in the theater lobby, they could have signed up half the audience, including me.

This is a secret – my wife didn’t even know about it until about a year ago, when I let it slip – but I tried. I tried to enlist in the Alaska Army National Guard.

One day at work, I dialed the phone.

“Hi, do you need people?” I asked the recruiter. “Do you train pilots?”

The local Guard unit had a couple of Twin Otters, which were used for moving people and equipment. Not F-14s, but that was probably as close as I would ever get.

“Sure, we’re always looking for good people,” he said.

“Well, what are your criteria?” I asked.

“Do you have a college degree?” he asked.

“You bet, I went to the Harvard of the North – the University of Alaska – Fairbanks.”

“That’s good. Are you in shape?” he asked.

“I just ran a marathon, if that’s what you mean.”

He was starting to get excited, like he had a live one on the line.

He asked a few more questions, and then finally asked, “Say, how old are you?”

I told him.

“Oh,” he said. “I’m sorry, but we can’t take old duffers.”

And that was that.

I’ve always been an airplane nut. My dad was in the Air Force 23 years, so I spent more time on bases than most enlisted guys. I mean, a bomber even crashed into our house when we lived on Guam.

I used to drag my wife and friends to any airplane museum or air show I heard about. I’ve been to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in D.C. about a dozen times. I once went to the Mecca of the airplane world, the air show at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which had more airplanes that I could count, including the supersonic Concorde.

Suffice it to say, I like planes, and Top Gun not only had them but, almost as importantly, provided life lessons that I – and anyone else – can live by. 

For example: “Never leave your wingman.” There are times when people lose track and allow themselves to drift away from the person who’s most important to them. And no, I’m not talking about Tom Cruise.

“Don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash.” This is among my many failings. Just ask anyone who knows me.

“It takes more than just fancy flying.” If you don’t accomplish anything, what, exactly, is the point?

And finally, “You’re not happy unless you’re going Mach 2 with your hair on fire.” Metaphorically speaking, I’m that guy, always going full speed in a different direction from everyone else. That’s when I’m happiest.

The sequel Top Gun: Maverick just came out. As of this writing I have not seen it – yet. But if you’re looking for me, I’ll be in the front row hanging out with Maverick and all the others. I have the need, the need for speed. 

Carl Sampson is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in Stayton.

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