Aim Higher!

A word or two about slogans: the Army has that cool slogan "Be all that you can be," which you can't hear without singing the song and even finishing the line "in the Army Reserve" in your head. It's catchy. It's memorable. It works. Go Army! The Air Force, though, uses "Aim High," sometimes written out in its long form: "Whatever you do in life, Aim High," which is really only okay. It doesn't have a song and it's no "be all that you can be," but it's a vast improvement over their previous slogan: the very lame "We're more than airplanes."

The Air Force could use some help in the PR department.

Enter the U.S. Air Force Experience Roadshow.

Equidistant from Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the Vans Skatepark at the Block in Orange lies a stretch of scorching parking-lot asphalt, upon which the U.S. Air Force Experience has set up shop for one weekend and one weekend only: Sept. 9 and 10. The traveling road show, which from a distance looks more like a circus sideshow, is designed to help the American public "reconnect" with the Air Force. On hand to help speed the connection is a bunch of cool stuff like an F-16, flight simulators, key chains, pens and pamphlets. There are even some real live uniformed Air Force people planted strategically near the F-16 fighter jet, looking fresh-faced and maybe a little bored. But unlike those uptight English guards who have to pretend to be statues, the Air Force people are allowed to talk to you. In fact, that's what they're there for!

Under a nearby tent, a small group of young'uns-many of them barely adolescents and many of them with their parents-waits patiently in a line that doubles back upon itself, amusement park ride-style, for their turn to ride the flight simulators, six of which are ensconced in a splashy, eye-catching mobile unit. While they wait, they are subjected to an endless loop of promotional Air Force videos, featuring loud, punchy music and soaring Eagles and soaring vistas and soaring planes and soaring pilots. There's a lot of soaring going on. It's all very Top Gun.

No less than three people and two press releases have used this "reconnect with the Air Force" sound bite. Of course, this begs the question of when they got disconnected.

"Well, it's not that the connection has been lost," says a publicist, backpedaling. "But with the economy as strong as it is, enrollments have been down in the last few years." It seems that the more options high school graduates are faced with, the less they are seduced by the idea of going off to war. Of course, there is no war, so the Air Force is really presenting itself as a means to an end, a career path, and a way for 18- to 29-year-olds who don't quite know what they want to do with their lives to finish their education and be part of something and take a step toward their future and gain a sense of accomplishment and, in the meantime, to take advantage of the health and insurance benefits and make lifelong friends and shop at discount grocery stores and live in dorms (unless they're married) that they can decorate however they want, "so long as it's in good taste," and yadda yadda yadda.

In fact, the brochures read more like summer-camp or college brochures than anything remotely involving the possibility of defense. Take, for example, this excerpt: "Most bases have ample recreational facilities, such as well-equipped gymnasiums, bowling centers, tennis courts, basketball courts, arts and crafts, and hobby shops. . . . In many cases, you may find facilities on base to help you develop your talents or just relax."

Aaah, the rejuvenating getaway that is the Air Force . . . perched somewhere at the patriotic crossroads of combat and sponge painting. And this is how it seems: all gauzy and fun and motivational and full of opportunity and having nothing to do with killing people or defending freedom-so much so that even a pacifist like me wonders why I never considered it.

Of course, this all changes. "IT'S LIKE a fancy video game," says Staff Sergeant Jason Tag, a top Air Force recruiter in Orange County, as he leads us past the line and into the back of the darkened mobile unit housing the flight simulators, which are exact replicas of the F-16 cockpit. The only difference between these flight simulators and the ones actually used in training is that these don't have a sensation of movement.

"Their mission is to blow up a bridge and an oil refinery," Tag whispers, pointing to a screen with all sorts of cross hairs and marks and a simulated 3-D rendering of mountains, sky and ocean.

"You wanna try it?" he asks. My roommate (whom I've dragged with me today) and I nod. Tag leads us to six touch-activated monitors with little cameras above them. A small sergeant appears on the screen. "So, hotshot, you think you're ready to blah blah blah," he says in a sneering way. I roll my eyes. He talks us through a "security clearance"-I'm guessing it's a roundabout way to collect demographics and compile a mailing list-where we type in our name and birth date and address and sex and education level and then look into the camera, with which our pictures are taken and our ID cards made up.

"Proceed to briefing, proceed to briefing," says a recorded voice-perhaps the same one that says stuff on Star Tours-as automated doors open and we're herded into a small, cold, dark room with seats and a screen. The same minuscule snotty sergeant appears on the screen to explain our mission, which is of "utmost national importance": to "annihilate two hostile targets." He's like a poorly written movie character. He wants us to "blast" a bridge and oil refinery "to smithereens." He wants us to "get rude." He wants us "to go out there and rock & roll." I'm surprised he doesn't say, "It's go time."

I write a couple of these gems down in my notebook, but I begin to feel uncomfortable as the woman on my right stares at me, dumbfounded. She thinks I'm a goober. I can feel it.

After a detailed tutorial on what all the throttles and controls do, we're told, as the music swells, "Good luck and fly safe. . . . And remember, the safety and security of this grateful nation is resting in your brave and capable hands-now let's go do it."

My hands are neither brave nor capable, though, and I crash into the ocean, crash into mountains, spin around, and find myself unable not to be upside down. I can't even find the oil refinery, let alone bomb it. I can't remember which throttle does what, and I can't tell if I'm moving at maximum or minimum speed. I'm a competitive person, though, so I'm not having fun.

"Here, I'll help you," says a voice from out of nowhere. An officer crouches down next to me and takes the throttle in his hand. I watch the screen. "Shoot, shoot, shoot!" he says. I look around nervously, wondering what he's getting so worked up over and thinking he's saying, basically, "damn it, damn it, damn it!" I finally realize that he's instructing me to shoot because we're hovering above the targets. I do shoot, and we blow up the oil refinery. I know this not from what the screen shows but from the officer's pleased reaction.

"You're a natural-you're really good. You could fly a real one. We could have you shipped off by Monday," he says as I crash in the desert. I want to believe him. I want to believe that I'm a "natural," but I can't get past the fact that I spun around, couldn't right myself, couldn't find the targets, crashed into the mountains and the ocean, didn't know if I was going forward or backward, and didn't understand what he meant when he told me to shoot. I was horrible. I should be nowhere near a jet. I'm a threat to national safety. Let's not pretend otherwise.

I look to the left to watch my roommate pull onto what looks like a freeway but is actually the runway. She has flown her jet perfectly and hit all her targets. It makes sense because she loves-and is very good at-video games. She plays them constantly. I, on the other hand, used to enjoy a rousing game of Pole Position in the days before I had my driver's license.

The argument against video games is that they turn kids into bloodthirsty killers by desensitizing them to violence. I'm never compelled by this argument, but somehow it's different today. I feel weird, and it's a weirdness that stays with me as I climb out of the darkened flight simulator and back out into daylight, as I walk away from the tent past the kids lining up and the officers joking with them, and as I walk to my car. My roommate points out that all that oil would have spilled into the ocean. I hadn't even thought about that. I feel weird because I wanted to blow things up and weird because it didn't feel real-it felt like a video game. Of course, it was only a video game.


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