Oh, to be Top Gun

The control tower guy was very encouraging. My whole plane crashed and he barely mentioned it.

I have what it takes to be one of America's top guns. How do I know? I've been to Fightertown Virtual Simulation Center in Orange County. It's a recreational facility where a person with some time and money can kind of learn to fly a fighter plane almost like America's fighter pilots themselves train, sort of. Last week I drove to Orange County and "flew" Fightertown's simulated F-117 Stealth plane. Both the drive and the flight were the acts of a true thrill seeker.

Orange County, California, is extremely right wing. Bob Dornan is their representative. He is the clownish, red-haired, anti-abortion fanatic and presidential candidate who used to carry some sort of plastic fetus in his pocket. He frequently bounds to the House floor to rant, accuse, and name call, often missing the topic of debate entirely. My 4 1/2-year-old would receive a time-out for such behavior. Bob Dornan gets re-elected.

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It took guts for me to go to Orange County. Fightertown is adjacent to a mall, so that after you complete your bombing mission, a rewarding cinna-bun or baked potato with the topping of your choice isn't far away. When I arrived, I paid my $40 to a couple of young women in white shirts with military hash marks. I think maybe they're just given those shirts by their employers. These women looked too young to have been cashiers in wartime. My half-hour briefing was really just watching a videotape of people (white men) looking enthusiastic about the "flight simulator experience." There were only four other recruits in my briefing: two grown men and a father with his 9-year-old son. The 9-year-old asked our instructor a couple of questions using technical flight jargon. Right away I had him pegged as a troublemaker.

Next we were issued floppy, brown, one-piece flight suits (no hash marks for beginners), harnesses, and helmets with headsets. I felt awfully goofy wearing all this gear to climb into a fixed cockpit that is probably less dangerous than the "It's a Small World"TM ride at Disneyland. (I only wore shorts, a T-shirt, and a hat with ears at Disney.)

Once suited up, we were taken to our individual cockpits. Naturally, it was difficult to part with my fellow recruits, my buddies. Watching that videotape together with a bunch of guys, something happens. I can't explain it, but you develop a closeness. Of course, I just kind of jerked my head at the fellas as I climbed up the ladder beside the cockpit and clumsily lowered myself down behind the controls, but inside, I wept.

I was in an F-117 Stealth, so I assumed that once the cockpit lid closed, no one could see me. As I turned the plane, the screen had a 360-degree image including ocean, bridges, airstrip, mountains, oil derricks, a river, an aircraft carrier, and a lighthouse. My control tower guy (who I suspect was up no higher off the ground than I was) talked me through the entire simulated flight. He called me "three-zero-eight."

Maybe it's because I was in the dark with only his voice to guide me or, more likely, it's because I'm a pathetic human being driven almost entirely by the desire to be liked, but as silly as this glorified video game obviously was, I wanted very much to do everything my control tower guy told me to do as well as it could be done. He was very encouraging. At one point I believe I crashed my whole plane and he barely mentioned it. Later, when I hit a bridge with one of maybe 20 missiles I'd fired at it, he said, "Good shot, three-zero- eight."

By the time I stepped out of the cockpit I was dripping with sweat and fairly certain that there was some merit in developing my fighter pilot skills--just in case.

It's no wonder Congress wants more B-2 bombers and a Seawolf submarine. The companies that make them would very much like to continue doing so and have made that well known to members of Congress who would very much like to run well-financed campaigns for re-election. On top of that, we love this stuff. Would, for example, a virtual reality operating room have any commercial appeal? I guess it's just how we are. I grew up playing cops and robbers--it never occurred to me to play social worker and inadequately parented teenager.

My great fear is that our congressional leadership will deliberately cause friction with other countries, just to justify more purchases. But even if Congress runs out of money to support troops by buying astronomically expensive weapons systems, keep in mind there's an extra supply of recreational combat-ready troops in Orange County.

"Letters to Paula"