"I'm Maverick, you're Goose," says Major League Eating MC Diamond Dave Keating to me as we bake in the sun on the flight line at Atsugi Naval Base, Japan. We are on our last stop of our Navy Entertainment tour and one of the few civilians allowed on the flight path. The argument is moot as soon as an FA-18G from the Shadow Hawks Squadron lands and pulls up 100 feet from us. As someone approaches the cockpit with a black brick on a long pole and begins to rub it across the glass, I assume that the New York City squeegee guys have commuted to Japan. However, it turns out that the device removes static that accumulates in flight. How much static? Enough to eject the pilot from the cockpit, and not from the ejector seat. LTJG Nortz and LT Kinghorn answer our many questions about the awesome plane in front of us. LT Kinghorn explains that the Shadow Hawks are considered nebbish compared to the other squadrons (we can see the fiercesome logos of the Warlords and the Royal Mace on other nearby planes) because their planes carry only one bomb and they are tech geeks. However, no plane goes out without a Shadow Hawk escort because what they do have is the finest radar jamming receiver in history. I even notice any bad thoughts that I have were quickly scrambled (OK that might be the jetlag instead). I asked about picking up radio transmissions and they said they created "Growler Radio" where more often than not, "Sweet Caroline" is played while flying at mach speed. The DJs that have been performing with us, perk up and offer their remix of Miley Cyrus and "Ride of the Valkyries."
We then head inside the hangar to meet LCDR "Mongo" Mattson. The military has the finest radar, tracking, and surveillance equipment in the world. When a piece of detection equipment becomes obsolete, Major League Eating requisitions its use to keep tabs on buffets and all-you-can-eat restaurants around the globe. Mongo Mattson was already known to Major League Eating because to win the first pick in the Shadow Hawks fantasy baseball league he ate a spicy pickle and five and half hot dogs in five minutes (a cross disciplined athlete). MLE eaters Adrian Morgan, Michelle Lesco, and I asked if Mongo would like to join us in a rib and chicken wing sprint. He did, while still in his flight suit. It was an amazing 90 second victory for Michelle Lesco, but Mongo hung tough cleaning his ribs like Joey "Jaws" Chestnut and using the meat umbrella technique for the wings (Mongo is an eating prodigy).
We meet CDR Ernie "Bert" Winston who graciously judges the contest. Winston is from Metairie, LA so he and Adrian (from Baton Rouge) talk beignets, crawfish, and how hard it is to get good grits in Japan. I corner Mongo to ask what he does. He is a EA-18G pilot and I ask what it feels like to fly one of the "Speed Racer" like jets. He said take-offs are just pure adrenalin, especially off a carrier when the 60,000 pound plane goes 160 miles in 2.5 seconds. Mongo added that sometimes high in the air, the rainbows are amazing and he feels an inner calm and serenity usually seen only in bubble bath commercials. However, landing on a carrier deck at night is a much different feeling. Mongo describes it as, "crapping your pants and orgasming at the same while feeling really happy that you did." I hope publishing Mongo's thoughts doesn't get him into trouble with the squadron, but hey, I can now imagine what it's like to land a war plane in the pitch black dark on a carrier deck, although I won't be attempting to duplicate the feeling in casual company. I promised Mongo that when he is done serving his country, Major League Eating would be happy to serve him some free food.
The next day was the Bon Odori open base festival, where 10,000 Japanese civilians are allowed on base to see the Navy Entertainment acts and interact with the American service men and women. The most popular place was MH-60R, a swanky super fancy helicopter. The tail is painted with cherry blossoms and Koi fish, but don't let that fool you into thinking that this helicopter isn't badass. AFCM Greg Behrends of the Warlords Squadron takes great care of every inch of this supreme flying machine. Each eater sat in the cockpit and learned what controls did what. Since this was after our eating pro-am and I was digesting 21 hot dogs and buns I found the MH-60R (or "Romeo" for short) to be very very comfortable.
The eating contest preceded the rain and our pro-am partners ranged from Yoshihiro Kono, a Japanese Corpsman, to Romalic Buggage from Kenner, LA whose job it is to work on the ejector seats (at the five minute mark of the contest, Romalic looked like he wanted to eject his stomach so he just ate the buns and I took over with the franks). HN Taeson Park was paired with Michelle Lesco who, showing off, did twenty HDBs in three minutes and then coasted the rest of the way. That gave Adrian "The Rabbit" Morgan time to catch up and his team went onto victory. Lesco was gracious in defeat, but I saw the competitive glint in her eye and I wonder if an ice cream shortage was about to commence on base.
This Navy Entertainment tour had the most synergy between the performing acts as DJs Baby Electronica played the Major League Eating intro music like Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," as Adrian Morgan entered the eating ring with a towel around his neck and his hands on the voluminous shoulders of headliner Kelly Bell - The Troops, all big American movie fans, got to see a real life enactment of Rocky Balboa on the shoulders of Clubber Lang, pumping up the crowd. The Kelly Bell Band would rock through rain and the DJs found their dance floor audience as late as 1 am in an on base bar above the Officer's Club. It was true Navy Entertainment synchronicity.
I have been a competitive eater for thirteen years and despite my dwindling skills and shrinking stomach, I would eat for The Troops anywhere, anytime in the world, any holiday, and any food. Why? Because that is the hours that they keep. While America celebrates, rests, and vacations, the military does not. Navy Entertainment and the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation divisions on all the bases and ships work tirelessly. One of our MWR folks at Atsugi is Jay Mozila, who not only made sure all the entertainers had everything they needed to perform, but also called in favors to get us into aircrafts and onto flight lines. His MWR counterpoint Lena Childs invited the gang over to her house for ribs (no easy invitation, when Ribfest champ Michelle Lesco is hungry). The Atsugi MWR head honcho is Paul Perry and he always tells me I won't see him next time because he is going to retire after twenty-eight years, but guess what, I always see him. His wife and daughter have taken to military base life and Paul has even sacrificed his comic book addiction while spending almost thirty years of military and MWR service. It is people like Paul Perry who make America run, even if they do it from Japan. It is teams like the Shadow Hawks and Warlords, who put America and its ideals, values, hopes, and dreams before themselves, their families, and their lives. My twenty one or so hot dogs and buns may give me an upset stomach, but the rumble of complaint is quickly drown out by the beating of my heart, filled with pride, awe, and respect for our armed forces and the men and women who serve. Upon my return to the States, the next time I see a flag, or hear the National Anthem, I will think of those at Atsugi Naval Base and truly know that my freedom (and stomach) is in safe hands.
Crazy Legs Conti flies an F-18 Unicycle at www.crazylegsconti.com