The evening seemed to be a success, Elizabeth thought happily!
Sheppard's bottle of Champagne to toast the Aurora had given her the idea and after months of mulling it over, she had finally arranged and hosted a Senior Officers dinner / cocktail party. Sheppard, McKay, Teyla and Col Caldwell had each been invited and asked to bring another senior staffer from their departments…if one could call the Athosian settlement Teyla's "department" for example… and Elizabeth hoped the time would be spent better getting acquainted on a more personal level. Atlantis was such a unique community, that she felt unique methods of team building were called for.
Playing the eager host, she had watched each person over the course of the evening to make sure everyone was benefiting from the exchange of rare work-free conversation. Smiling, she watched Maj Lorne and Teyla in animated conversation, Sheppard's personable 2nd in Command reveling in the tales she told about the No 1 Team's adventures. Rodney, Zelenka, and Dr. Novak spent a lot of time speaking in a language that no one else understood, but Elizabeth was pleased to see that the nervous Dedalus engineer didn't hiccup once. Caldwell was a consummate schmoozer, and he worked the room easily. It was good to have some more connections to their here-again, gone-again acquaintances, she thought.
John Sheppard was her only enigma. He didn't look uncomfortable, he wore an easy smile the whole evening and laughed at the appropriate times. He just seemed to stay in the background, preferring to listen rather than contribute. Somehow that surprised her, although she didn't know why. Maybe because he was so…present…the rest of his time on Atlantis. As ranking military officer when Caldwell wasn't around, he simply commanded attention, professionally and in his personal interactions. Vowing to draw him out, she waited for an opportunity.
It came very late in the evening, after McKay, Novak, and Zelenka had left to continue their animated babble of nonsense in Rodney's lab and Halling had politely excused himself to retire for the evening. Teyla, Lorne, Caldwell and Elizabeth had pulled up chairs into a comfortable circle on the balcony, glasses in hand and had somehow fallen into reminiscing about how their various careers had started, and how their current lives differed from how they imagined as young men and women. Sheppard chose to lean contentedly against the railing, facing them, but not quite joining the circle.
Caldwell, who could tell a story very well and spoke as if holding court, shared a very funny incident during his basic training involving land navigation, wild pigs and poison ivy. "…Right then and there, I decided I wanted to be way above the ground at all times. So I put in my application to be a Pilot Candidate that same week." The group chuckled appreciatively, settling into a comfortable pause in the conversation.
"What about you, John?" Elizabeth turned to him deliberately, hoping to engage him in his favorite topic aside from football. "When did you decide to become a pilot?"
He smiled and raised his chin a bit in subtle acknowledgement that he'd been caught out. As the rest turned to him expectantly, he just looked down into his glass, swirling the contents idly…
"Col. Sheppard? Over here sir." The Air Force Captain gestured politely to the visiting dignitary and his young son who tagged dolefully behind the gray-haired crisp and proper Colonel. He would be flying them in an arial tour of the Army's newly constructed war grounds, and he saluted as they approached. "Captain Lance Miller. I'll be your pilot for the duration of the tour, sir."
"At ease, Captain." The Colonel spoke with warm formality and extended his hand to shake with the airman. "My son, John," he added placing the hand next on the boy's unruly mop of black hair. While the gesture seemed fatherly, Miller saw the hand try to smooth down the shock of hair that undoubtedly stuck up most of the time. The boy barely rolled his eyes, managing to project just the right amount of boredom without actually offending anyone. Moments later, the Colonel was called aside into conversation with the base commander and other guests who would be joining the tour.
"John, go on ahead with Captain Miller. We'll meet you at the helicopter."
Miller smiled kindly, gestured him to follow and began to walk across the wide landing pads towards the helicopter they would be using. John nodded, his eyes still watching his father until he was sure the Colonel was engrossed in the conversation then quickly ran a hand back through his hair, fluffing it up again and adding a few more spikes to the ensemble. Miller choked back a snort, staring ahead for a few paces to hide his wide grin from the boy.
"So, how'd you get to come along today?" The young airman had a passel of nephews just this age, 11 or 12, and he felt deep sympathy for any kid suffering through that painfully awkward stage. No longer a child, but not quite yet a man.
John just shrugged, hands in his pockets. "Mom's sick. Dad couldn't figure out anything else to do with me."
Oh. The boy's bluntness spoke of the detachment of long endurance and Miller's heart went out to the kid. But before he could think of anything else to say, John jutted his chin at the chopper they were approaching. "That's a Black Hawk," he said professionally.
Miller was impressed. "Yeah. Just off the assembly line. Sikorsky UH-60A." John was nodding knowingly. "General Wyckoff called us over to show off the new birds for your Dad's inspection."
"I like the Hueys."
"They're still great old ships," Miller agreed. They had reached the shiny new helicopter and a short friendly looking man backed out of the cockpit he had been leaning into to greet his partner with a slap on the arm. "John, this is my co-pilot, Captain Ramirez. Taco, this is John Sheppard, Colonel Sheppard's son, and our special guest today." With a very serious nod, the boy shook the co-pilot's hand firmly.
The two older men exchanged amused glances at the formality of the youngster's gesture and Ramirez chuckled before turning to Miller, "You going to run a pre-flight, Tuck?"
"Yeah, the rest'll be here any minute…" the pilot leaped easily into the sleek machine and was soon absorbed in flicking switches, tapping gauges and writing in a small paper notebook. Ramirez squatted to run his gaze carefully the length of the craft, then walked around to the other side and performed the same maneuver. John followed, hands back in his pockets. Finally, sounding like the words had just burst out of him he asked, "Did Captain Miller just call you Taco?"
Ramirez beamed, "Si, muchacho. It's my call sign, or nickname I guess. Tuck's fault."
"Tuck is Captain Miller's call sign?"
"Yeah, as in Tuck & Roll. He's the best pilot I've ever seen, he'll make Major soon. Invented a new evasive technique that everyone calls the Tuck and Roll maneuver. When I got stuck as his co-pilot, everyone said I should be "Roll", but that's a crappy call sign on it's own. So Tuck came up with Taco, and it fits…kind of a Mexican Roll!" Ramirez was chatting happily as he continued his inspection around the craft and when they reached their starting point, the whine of the engines began to fill the air, although the rotors stayed locked in place. Miller joined them and slapped John on the back who finally looked like a kid should look around helicopters. The boy stared in admiration at the two very cool men who had included him in their camaraderie.
"So, what do you think of her?" Miller asked recognizing the signs of hero-worship and not at all minding.
"Very cool," John replied fervently, including the gleaming helicopter in his appreciative gaze.
"John!" The elder Sheppard barked, and the boy jumped in guilty reaction. "Come here son, stop bothering the pilots."
"Sir! It's a Black Hawk!" The young captain winced as the enthusiasm so hard won was immediately crushed by the dismissive retort, "Yes, yes, I said come here."
Miller, at strict attention alongside Ramirez, watched the boy shuffle over to his father's side to be introduced to General Wyckoff and the other top brass and run through the pat-smooth-eyeroll routine. At one point, the Colonel's hearty voice drifted to them as he said, "John's got a spot reserved at West Point for him, just like his old man. Isn't that right, son?" Miller heard a resigned, "Yes sir." Followed by "That is if he gets his grades up…"
Once the pilots had been dismissed to begin flight preparations, and the group was being helped into the roomy but sparse chamber of the Black Hawk's main compartment, Miller darted into the cockpit, yanked out a pilot's helmet and headset and shoved it into John's hands saying, "It'll be a bit big, but you can raise the shield and tighten up the straps…"
"He doesn't need that," Col. Sheppard scowled, as if concerned the boy was somehow being a nuisance.
Miller drew himself to attention and replied respectfully, "Sorry sir, regulations. All underage passengers must be outfitted with safety gear…" The colonel frowned for a moment before turning to enter the ship himself. "Very well."
Miller winked at John who was wide-eyed with surprise, gave the boy a boost up, and drew the compartment door closed. Once they were airborne, with a conspiratorial grin at Ramirez, Miller changed frequencies on his headset and said, "Hey, John." He watched the boy's head tilt and twist as he tried to locate the source of the voice suddenly speaking to him. "It's Tuck, can you scootch around enough to see into the cockpit?" The head nodded and Miller could soon see a small excited face in the rear-view, nearly swallowed up by the enormous helmet on his head. "You get the behind-the-scenes tour kid!" And with that they spent the rest of the flight in secret instruction, John as eager student, even occasionally gaining the courage to whisper a question of his own, after many furtive looks around him to make sure no one else would see him speaking…
Back on the ground, an unremarkable flight later for everyone but the 3 conspirators, Miller and Ramirez stood again at attention as the group exited. Nodding respectfully to accept their superiors' thanks and praise, the two Captains were secretly grinning. John clamored out last, moving very slowly with the helmet in his hands. Reluctantly handing it to Captain Miller, he muttered a heartfelt but sorrowful "thanks".
"You OK?" Miller asked warmly.
"Yeah, it's just that… Dad doesn't like to fly…" and with that he scurried away at the brusque call of his father to slouch along beside him away towards the base.
Miller watched the group for a long time. With sudden inspiration, he scrabbled in his bag on the floor of the cockpit to snatch something out, and then dashed across the tarmac tugging at his collar. Breathless, he ran up to John who was lagging morosely behind and dragging his feet. "Hey kid!" John turned, surprised. "Was that your first flight on a helicopter?" Miller spoke loudly over the boy's shoulder as if to address the Colonel who had turned with another suspicious frown. John nodded, puzzled. "Then you've earned your wings," and Miller presented him with a flourish the pin he'd removed from his own collar. "Let me pin that on you…"
John was beaming, and Miller smiled back at the look of pure joy. "Here's something else," he whispered, handing him a small paper pamphlet under the cover of kneeling to attach the gold Air Force emblem. "Just in case West Point doesn't work out," Miller winked. John took it, wide-eyed, glancing at the text before carefully concealing it in his pocket with a furtive look in all directions.
With a renewed spring in his step, John dashed away again to his father and seemed to practically float across the ground. Miller watched until the boy, with one last look back and a happy wave, entered the main buildings and was gone.
Lt. Colonel John Sheppard looked down into his glass and swirled the contents idly…
"John?" Elizabeth's voice was amused and the others were passing smiling glances amongst themselves as they waited for him to say…anything.
Finally grinning, he leaned back into a cocky pose with his elbows on the rail behind him and just said, "I think that anyone who doesn't want to fly is crazy." And he threw back the rest of his watery drink with a mighty gulp.
Much later, as Atlantis drifted quietly in starlit slumber, John jerked with a snort as his book, still unfinished, fell off his sleeping chest to the ground with a quiet thump. A small, dog-eared, yellowed piece of paper fell out, parchment-thin from age and the many creases and folds it had endured.
"United States Air Force" it read, "So you Want to Become a Pilot!…"
Author's note: In researching for this little drabble, I learned that the Bell Helicopter "Hueys" (familiar in Vietnam images) were replaced in around 1979 by the more modern Black Hawk Helicopters. At the age John is in the story, they were just being released for military use. I also learned that there is a Sheppard AFB in Texas that is still an active training facility, named after Texas Senator Morris E. Sheppard. Since it seems likely that the Stargate writers named our favorite Atlantis pilot after the AFB, it only seemed fair to name his father after the aforementioned senator. Enjoy!