First off, an apology is probably in order up front as this story may offend a few folks, but you need to understand the time period and also the crazy nature of being young and being assigned to a Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron at Miramar, Ca., home of Top Gun. I’ll just have to spit ball the exact time this happened as I just can’t remember the date, but the year was probably 89-90. At the time I had been assigned to a tomcat fighter squadron at Naval Air Station Miramar, Ca. for a few years and I had a few pretty good friends who, like me, loved to fish. There were about 5-6 of us in the squadron who were always trying to figure out a way to wet a line. A friend of mine, Oscar, was in my squadron and an avid fisherman. He had spent some time working down at North Island Naval Air Base which was south of Miramar and right on the waters of San Diego Bay. San Diego Bay was a pretty vast area, running for miles and the bay itself held a submarine fleet as well as leading to 32nd street where most of the Navy ships were stationed when in port. It also led to the pier at North Island where the big aircraft carriers docked when in port. North Island was a very large base and there was a little military recreation/rental shop on the water where sailors and Marines could rent small fishing boats and fish in San Diego Bay. The boats were little 14-foot Boston Whalers which were docked right at the rental center, and you had to pass a Coast Guard administered test to rent the boat. Once you took the Coast Guard “rules of the water” exam and passed you were issued a laminated card issued by the Coast Guard which was your license to rent a Whaler without taking the exam again. Oscar had the license and he and I fished the bay quite frequently. Sometimes there would be 3 of us as our other friends Steve, Lucky or Frank would jump in the boat with us from time to time.
The bay had very good fishing and when we went fishing in the bay it was all about table fare. We were usually targeting Sand Bass, Calico Bass, Halibut and Sculpin. All were very edible, and a nice big Halibut would go a long way for our meals back at the house, so we liked to target Halibut, dragging big 2-3-ounce root beer Scampi rigs on the sandy bottom of the bay. The picture below was taken by Oscar during one of our fishing trips in the bay. A beach on the south end of the airstrip at North Island is in the background and we were near the mouth of San Diego Bay. We had a mixture of fish including a nice big Halibut, sand bass and sculpin that afternoon and you can see a little bit of our old rental Whaler with a little 25hp Johnson tiller on the back. I was in my late 20’s when this picture was taken.
There were restricted areas of the bay that were off limits to recreational boats and there was a floating bait barge nearer to the mouth of the bay. The bait barge was a regular stopping point for the charter boats and longer-range fishing boats so they could stock up on bait. There was a small submarine base in the bay, and it was one of those restricted areas we couldn’t be around. Often times when we were fishing the bay, we would watch Navy SEAL’s working with dolphins or sea lions and training for all kinds of different scenarios. The SEAL’s had special boats with access doors on the gunnel and the dolphins or sea lions would jump into the boat and hitch a ride with the SEAL boats from location to location. The dolphins and sea lions were the equivalent of a trained military K9, and they worked with the SEAL teams often, training in the bay. Frank and I made friends with a Navy SEAL while we were stationed in San Diego but when they were out in the bay working, we didn’t get near them.
Most of the times that Oscar and I fished together, there was a third in the boat. My good friend Frank was probably the one that went with us most. Frank was an electrician in our shop, and he and I rented a house together in the suburbs of San Diego. Frank was from Brooklyn and he and I were stationed together in San Diego, then again in Louisiana. Next was Steve. I met Steve not long after checking into the squadron. Steve was like me; an aviation electrician and he like to fish. Steve was from San Diego, and he knew the area pretty well. Steve and I became good friends and like Frank, Steve and I were stationed together in San Diego, then again, later in Louisiana. Steve and I were close, and we spent a lot of time together in Ca. as well as Louisiana. We had a lot of fun times together, both in San Diego and in Louisiana, but Steve’s wife passed suddenly, shortly after they were transferred to Louisiana and Steve’s life changed dramatically. At times, he wasn’t the same person I knew in San Diego, and after his wife’s passing, I worried about Steve a lot. In some ways, it seemed like a part of Steve was lost with the loss of his wife. We eventually parted ways after I moved to the Atlanta area, and he moved back out west. I learned of Steve’s passing a few years back and I just wonder if Steve found happiness again before his passing. He was a good friend and I miss him.
Another guest that Oscar and I had from time to time was “LT” or Lieutenant Dave “Lucky” Lopez. He was our Maintenance officer and the squadrons liaison between the enlisted folks like me and the pilots. LT was a fisherman and really enjoyed going out with us in the Whaler. LT was also an excellent fly fisherman and we wet a line together a few times in the mountain streams of Oregon while on detachment to a small Air National Guard base in central Oregon. LT had a hard job in the squadron and many times I saw LT go toe to toe with the pilots, making sure us enlisted guys were well taken care of. We worked very hard to maintain our jets and there was a balance between being overworked and successfully completing our mission without accidents. Believe me, there were accidents in the squadron. Our squadron had a reputation for accidents, and I just have to shake my head at some of the loss of life in that squadron. Everything from fishing boat accidents to crashing jets, it brought new meaning to the phrase “work hard, play hard”. When I got to the squadron, they had just returned from a 2-week detachment to the Nevada desert where 5 of the squadron maintenance personnel rented a fish boat at a marina on a large lake near our air base. Somehow the boat capsized in the wind and the 5 fishermen in the squadron swam for shore. Only 2 made it back. Shortly after I checked in, our squadron crashed one of our jets and the “RIO” or back-seater was killed in the crash. The pilot survived the crash, but the passing of the RIO was another life lost while I was in the squadron. It was a tough squadron to be in, the work was very very hard, and LT was the ringmaster for the whole show.
From time-to-time LT would join Oscar and I on a fishing trip out in the bay. We always had a few cocktails and LT would indulge during our fishing trips. Even though LT was an officer and there were some unwritten rules about fraternization between officers and enlisted folks, but LT really like hanging out with us fishermen in the squadron. He was one of us out in the boat and we treated LT just like another fisherman. During my first year in the squadron my dad came out to San Diego for a visit, and I set us up for a multi-day offshore fishing trip. It was Oscar, LT, myself and my dad on the trip and we had a blast. My dad and LT got along great together while we fished all day, played cards and drank bourbon at night. My dad would tell the story of that trip for years afterwards and he had quite a fond memory of LT. This was LT was holding up a Pacific Sheepshead and my dad was taking a picture of me taking a picture of LT.
There was one particular memory that has always been a favorite of mine and I’ve never really shared it with anyone till now but I feel it may be appropriate for a Memorial Day memory and I don’t think LT would mind a bit. I think the year was 89 and the USS Lincoln had just been brought into service as the newest aircraft carrier in the fleet. The Lincoln’s homeport was San Diego, and the San Diego area was very proud of the newest addition to the area and Pacific fleet. The USS Lincoln was a “Nimitz” class aircraft carrier which basically meant it was big. When it came into the San Diego Bay it got a lot of attention, both on the water and on the shore. The shoreline would be lined with people wanting to watch the big carrier come into the bay and pass right by the city itself. The bay police on the water would guard the massive carrier when it came into the bay and tugboats would help to steer the massive ship if needed. The bay police were on big Zodiac type boats, and they made sure that no recreational boats got near the carrier as it came through the bay. There were also trained Navy personnel with weapons on the carrier to watch anything the bay police might miss but it’s a big deal when the carrier comes in.
It just so happened that myself, Oscar and LT happened to be fishing in the bay when the Lincoln came back into port from a highly publicized 3-week mission off the coast of South America. The operation was a success, and the return of the brand-new USS Lincoln was a big deal in the area. As the Lincoln came into the bay there were news helicopters circling above and water cannons going off around the carrier from the fire boats in the bay. The flight deck of the carrier was lined with sailors in their dress whites as the carrier passed through the bay. We were fishing just inside the bay as the massive Lincoln entered the bay at high tide.
I gotta say this about the moment the big carrier pass by our little Whaler in the bay. The carrier was majestic, and the moment was very surreal as the carrier came by. It was almost completely silent as it came by, with the only sound being the low drumming hum of the big motors turning the giant propellers to move the massive floating city. I was standing on the bow of the boat with LT in the middle and Oscar at the stern as the carrier passed us. I could see the men lining the edge of the flight deck and I could see their black neckerchiefs and bellbottoms blowing the same direction in the wind. At the time, there were no women allowed on the carrier and it was all a bunch of dudes in dress whites just looking down at us fishermen. That’s when it happened, I was living in my best patriotic moment with a tear in my eye when LT just turned around and dropped trial right there in the Whaler. LT gave those sailors standing silently and motionless at parade rest on the flight deck a show they really didn’t expect. I think at that point, Oscar and I followed suit and dropped trail also. Here were 3 guys in a small fishing boat mooning our shipmates as they passed by in the bay. I’m sure those guys were hoping for topless ladies in tiny bikinis and LT made sure we got their attention by yelling and a few gyrations during the exhibition. It was one of the funniest moments of my Navy career and something I’ve never forgotten. I’ve stood on the flight deck of aircraft carriers as they came into the San Diego Bay, and I’ve seen the bay from the flight deck perspective often but there’s only been one time that I’ve seen an aircraft carrier from a Boston Whaler while exposing my backside to a bunch of sailors. It was a hilarious moment, and it was our fishing friend LT that made those kinds of moments for us. There was never a dull moment with LT.
LT was a great friend and a great fisherman who helped bring some great memories to my life during his time on this earth, but LT lost his life in a vehicle accident during a short squadron detachment to an Air Guard base in Ore. It was devastating to our fighter family and especially us fishermen in the squadron.
I remember attending LT’s memorial service at the chapel on base. It was standing room only and the crowds spilled out of the church. LT was single and I believe there were no fewer than 3 dozen pretty women in attendance. LOL… (LT could charm the ladies and usually provided the entertainment for the Officers Club at Miramar).
At the end of LT’s memorial service at Miramar these were the last words spoken during his eulogy. Most referred to LT as “Lucky” but he was “LT” to us fishermen and enlisted guys in the squadron.
Great story Jim, thanks for sharing