Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Thrill of the Blue Angels

Once a year, residents of the number one summer American vacation destination thrill and squeal when the sky rumbles and shrieks. They croon when the water rustles from booming churners, and sway as aerial somersaults tumble hundreds of feet nearly on their heads.

A Jabberwocky experience? No, Seafair weekend in Seattle.

Heart be still. No, keep palpitating! It's too excruciatingly exhilarating, too endlessly enthralling! Millions of people, all craning, jumping, waving and cheering, over at least a dozen square miles, at the same time, cameras snapping, video cameras whirring...

The floating bridge I-90 freeway that spans from downtown Seattle across Lake Washington is completely closed down. All along the southern-most shores of the 22-mile-long lake, terracing up on island and community hillsides, people perch, sparks of excitement binding them like timber ready to crackle.

The buzz is faint at first, growing louder. It's slow old Fat Albert Airlines, the Marines' propeller support craft that does loops and turns around the Lake, the City, the Sound, alerting the eager minions that the Blue Angels will soon appear. As the plump plane scoops low overhead, the crowds jump. We love Fat Albert, the endearing prelude so close we can throw kisses.

Fat Albert descends behind the Duwamish ridge, and it's silent as all search the skies and strain to hear and see them first. Suddenly: "Across the Lake!" Six small dots, approaching, nearly touching, promising. "There they are!"

So quick, so unified and tight, six deep blue Boeing F/A-18 Hornets with "US Navy" in yellow on their bellies, sneak up and pounce, their faster-than-the-speed-of-sound approach startling all with the thundering "zoom" rattling the sky overhead. They zip low to the lake, in unison emitting a trail of white smoke, souvenir of their ownership of the water, the heavens, and our ecstatic hearts.

Whether standing with neighbors on the crest of a hill a few blocks from home (as I was Friday for their practice), or gathered in a Seattle beach park with picnickers and bathers floating on inflatable rafts (as I was today), the childlike wonder, the joyous camaraderie perceiving and gawking at the feats and power of the Blue Angels binds Seattle in unique rapture.

We ooh, ahh, and applaud together. We leap to our feet and scream as the sextet of synchronized machines snarls mightily above, so close we are united in astonishment. We congratulate each other on being quick enough to catch them in our lenses, at keeping them within viewfinder, they dip and weave and drop and part, to altitudes so high they become nearly invisible; and skims so low we instinctively duck.

They loop in a line; they meet from divergent points and nearly collide, only to splay out, jet streaming a flower in the sky. They squiggle; they zip toward each other from opposite directions and when you fear they must explode, two shift sideways--a near miss! While five circle 'round, one twirls over and over and over until spectators are dizzy; the five return and leap straight up to the stratosphere, curling backward in a sky-flip. For more than an hour, we stand agog, turning toward sound, reeling from surprises, awed by audacity.

Though I have yet to attend Seafair's fabled Hydroplane races, I hear the powerful craft that, due to new turbo engines merely blare rather than startle. Seattleites harbor nostalgic fondness for the old days, but the adrenaline still flows at the low-slung craft that can beat 150 mph. One-fourth of residents own a boat, and many of them are moored just outside the raceway perimeter; in fact, Lake Washington is hull to hull with anchored fans seeking the perfect view.

The hydroplanes and Blue Angels are followed by the airshow, and as we drove the floating bridge home, we gaped at stunt pilots' flits, corkscrews, dives and swirls.

Seafair has its mascots, too, a swashbuckling crew that drives a wheeled facsimile of a pirate ship, sword-wielding mateys with eye-patches, bandannas, beards and a penchant for words containing R-r-r-r-r! Our daughter was driving on the I-5 freeway when the ship pulled aside and the captain bade her roll down her window. With the whiz of the freeway, he offered her free tickets to Seafair, gesturing to pull off at the next exit. She waved him on, ambivalent though many events, including the concert and fireworks, coincided with Shabbat. Rrrrrats!

As I watched the Blue Angels, surrounded by happy families, it occurred to me that I was part of a wonderfully special spirit. Never in Los Angeles, my hometown, was there an annual community mania that bound together so many neighbors. Seattle has a sense of place, of closeness (sometimes snobbery) that is delightfully apparent. Then I got to many other cities, states--even countries--enjoy something similar? And once again, I am eminently grateful to be born here, in this beautiful land, with this luxious summer, and the connection that lifts our eyes and our hearts heavenward.


  1. We used to go often in Cleveland. So much fun. :)

  2. Oh, this post makes me miss Seattle! Well, more than I already do. That city stole a huge chunk of my heart during the three months I was there - I especially miss it every summer. I'll have to come back for Seafair one of these years!

  3. I've often thought that watching the Blue Angels would be a good cure for a lack of patriotism. How can one not love America and all she stands for after seeing the Blue Angels perform?

  4. Yikes! They look like such crazy bug-eyed bugs in that second photo of yours....