I hope I don’t need Dramamine, I thought, as I headed down Highway 50 to Mather Field.
I was playing big-shot media reporter and got ultra-exclusive early access to a virtual reality military tour thingie just before the big California Capital Airshow opened to the public for the weekend (you know, the one with the Blue Angels?).
The day before, I was told that I must apply for media credentials in order to get this ultra-exclusive early access. As I filled out the online form, I knew they’d see right through my blogging ass and even though I’d already been “vetted”, no way would they let a phony like me through.
But then they did. And now here I am pulling up to the Mather Jet Center fronted with real media vans with TV logos and satellite dishes. And I walk in and get passed from one person to another and here, go put this official media tag in your car and here are your credentials and this is Jim and he will drive you out to the “launch pad”, and Jim golf-carts me across the tarmac to a bunch of tents as a Blue Angels jet is buzzing the runway and flipping around and swirling and diving and busting my ear drums.
It’s a windy ride to the Launch Pad site where Jim, who looks a little like William Devane, drops me off and now I don’t know what to do. Because I don’t see a crowd of paparazzi and boom microphones surrounding a hard-to-see VIP, slowly traveling across the asphalt like a media octopus.
So I wander around the high-tech displays and eavesdrop on some Blue Angels talking to a crowd of STEM students about how awesome the US Navy is and I’ve come in near the end of their talk because kids are raising their hands to ask questions, like: “What happens if you pass out in the air?”
And I have to assume that this youth is not asking this question as a silly child looking for death-defying drama, but rather, it is because he is an intelligent student who is more concerned with terminal velocity and G-forces and the Science and the Technology and the Engineering and the Math behind the question. He is calculating the physics behind how much time a pilot has to regain consciousness and spatial awareness before splatting at 9.8 meters per second squared into a greasy spot on the desert floor.
But that’s not why I was there. I was supposed to be getting a tour, along with a mass of reporters firing questions like they do at the White House press briefings after a huge disaster.
I asked a random person in uniform, “Uh…is that the virtual reality display”, as I pointed to a big blue 18-wheel trailer some distance away.
“Yes!” he and someone else standing there said with enthusiasm.
“Um, well, I’m with the media?” I said, flashing my very important credentials.
Why don’t they give you a brown hat with a hand-written index card stuffed in the band on top that says PRESS? That’s how they should do it. Ah, the good old days.
They stared at me expectantly like “and…?”, so I took control of the situation. I confidently continued, “and there’s supposed to be a tour for us? Or something?”
So they walked me over to another guy who walked me over to a girl who explained what I was about to walk into and walked me into it.
“This is the briefing section,”she says, standing in front of a futuristic monitor. “Would you like to see it?”
She holds a dog tag in front of a panel. “Normally, each person will get their own RFID tag and it tracks your performance, you can just use mine.”
I put on headphones and the screen displays the briefing and the whole time I’m thinking, “Wow, this looks and sounds like a movie!” I felt like I was in an episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who. The new ones, not the old ones, you silly geese.
Then comes the middle section. The pièce de résistance. The magnum opus. The part everyone comes in for: the Oculus Rift. (Cue angels singing. Regular ones, not Blue ones):
“So…” I say hesitantly as two girls clearly can’t wait to tie me up into this thing. “The thing is, I get motion sick easily and…I didn’t bring my Dramamine and…”
“Oh,” said one of the girls. “Well, you don’t have to do this.”
“No, I want to do this!” I cry, grabbing her shoulders and looking deep into her eyes. “I must do this!”
Because I am a professional. Otherwise, what does that say about my credibility and authority as a journalist if I don’t experience it myself? Don’t journalists take the hypocratic oath or whatever?
And anyway, if I couldn’t save the SEALs, the girls would rip me out of there before I got everyone killed and that’s what counted. I just didn’t want to barf all over their shiny new trailer.
So they strap me in and yell in my ear and I belt out a bunch of Sir-yes-Sir!’s and they say if I can’t take it I should just quit and I cry, “But I got nowhere else to go!!!”
Actually, it was more like they gingerly slip my arms into a vest and ask my permission to fasten the buckle at my chest and affix the VR headset as I giggle nervously. Then they place my hands on the wheel and the throttle and the next thing you know I’m in a 360-degree jungle in enemy territory piloting a Navy assault vehicle down a river with a bunch of other soldiers, taking ground and air fire, and I turn around and there’s another boat behind us and we ultimately rescue some Navy SEALs. Woo hoo!
Then they take me to debriefing where I should have received a Medal of Honor, a Golden Jungle Boat Trophy, a hero’s welcome with a ticker-tape parade down 5th Ave. and shake hands with the President. Only I don’t have my own dog tag, so I don’t know what my performance grade is. And I’m a little nauseous, but not enough to toss my cookies.
They escort me outside and down the trailer steps to the waiting Navy staff to answer any questions about the experience and the Navy itself, so I say to the guy in the white uniform, “What is the typical question you get when people do come out of this experience?”
“You’re the first one to come out of it.”
“Ever. This is the display’s debut and you are the first journalist to go through it. So you get to ask the first question.”
I look around and realize the media circus I had expected was nowhere in sight. I am first! I am special! I’d better ask a question. And it had better be good. A line of STEM students began to form at the entrance to the VR display trailer. Look out, Pulitzer, here I come.
“Uh….so….okay, I see that line over there and it’s mostly boys. How many girls go into the Navy?”
“A lot. In fact, we are trying to recruit more and more women.”
We talked about how the facilities are getting redesigned to accommodate more women, including the submarines. I felt like a feminist hag asking that question, but jeez, I didn’t think I’d be the only one there and therefore had to improvise.
Then I got personal on him and asked him his name, what he does, where he’s from, what he gets out of the Navy and what their message is here at the airshow.
His name is Jim, he’s 36 and originally from Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, if I recall, I’m not sure, I mean, who writes that stuff down?) He started out in intelligence but now manages the local recruitment effort, so what does he get out of the Navy? A career. And the Navy isn’t all about war and guns. They are at the airshow to promote aspects of the Navy people might not be aware of because most of what you see in the media is war and guns.
The majority of soldiers don’t see combat. In 16 years, Jim hasn’t seen it.
And I don’t mind helping him spread the word about how you can learn valuable life and career skills and get a college degree while serving your country because frankly, kids aren’t taught valuable life skills in school because schools are focusing on “teaching to the test.”
When I went to Israel, where military service is mandatory for everyone, I spoke to some young adults who appreciated the education, and the professional and personal growth they got out of it. And that’s what I see as the benefit of our own military service because schools don’t budget for classes like, How to Be a Responsible Adult, Good Manners, Team Building, Mental Health, Critical Thinking, Common Sense,… etc. Oh, don’t get me started.
So yeah, go Navy.
Hey, here’s a 30-second video you can watch to get an idea of what I saw. Sort of. If you’re at the Airshow in Sacramento this weekend, check out the US Navy Virtual Reality experience in the big blue trailer! Or if you’re in San Francisco next week, they will be at SF Fleet Week, too!
(Video courtesy of Navy Partnership)