Tuesday, 6 March, 2012 a light went out. At 0915 there was an accident, in the snow and the fog and the wind at Fallon NAS in Nevada. A “52 year old pilot, flying a 35 year old plane against 24 year old pilots” suffered an accident in which for reasons as yet unknown, resulted in his running off the taxiway into an ammunition storage facility and dying.
Below the fold news to the country at large. But not to everyone. The Secretary of the Navy sent his condolences to the family the pilot left behind. As did the Commander of the United States European Command, a four star admiral in the United States Navy. Pretty much all of the military bloggers in the United States have eulogized this pilot.
Carroll “Lex” LeFon, Captain, United States Navy, Retired. He spent a career in the Navy and retired after numerous carrier deployments with over 4,000 hours as a naval aviator flying first the A-7 and then the F-18 before retiring. Those that served with him know him for his wit, wisdom, his ability as a Naval aviator, and his ability as a leader. Could he fly? Yeah, the Navy sent him to be the assistant commander of TOPGUN. You may have heard of it, I think some guy made a training flick about the place.
He retired, something he apparently hadn't thought would happen, figuring something would happen to him first. But he did and moved to the civilian sector toiling diligently in a cube, still doing useful things for his Navy and doing the dutiful husband and father thing to support his family. From a glass cube at 30,000 feet at high speed to a padded cube at zero feet and no speed. And yet, there he was, still witty, still humorous, still smart and hard working impressing his civilian coworkers even on the ground.
What I and many others know him for is his writing, his wit, and his wisdom as doled out in his blog on the Web. Started early on he was part of the first wave of milbloggers, blogging on things military. And things not. His central theme was things military, but he touched upon politics, religion, life as a husband, life as a father, life as a military man, life as a Navy man, and life as a pilot. Especially life as a pilot. He would recount “sea stories” of various things that happened to him as a naval aviator, in the air and not. In the Army we call these “war stories” and they usually start out along the lines of “There I was, knee deep in hand grenades . . .” and you sometimes laugh out of politeness and sometimes you just laugh. When Lex told his you couldn't laugh because you were in the cockpit with him. Your heart would pound and your body would clench and you would know as best as is possible what it is like to fly without having done so. So much so that people, sometimes other pilots, would ask his advice and their feedback was that he was spot on in what he recommended for them.
On his blog reason and discourse were king. Prosaic and prolific, erudite and concise, he wove a fascinating dialogue on a number of topics. A community gathered around him where all were welcome to join the banter, lurk, or expound. With decorum and reason. Or at least with decorum. Sans decorum there are other venues for you that he would recommend. Graciously and not maliciously, but there are places for that behavior and his community was not one of those places. Tolerance and reason allow folks to discuss and interact with each other freely. And so they did, this community of Lex. Over the years the regulars would visit, discuss, or lurk. Getting to know each other, building relationships that even they were unaware of at the time. And the years passed, and this online community flourished.
And Lex, his blog is Neptunus Lex, toiled by day, was husband and father by night, and blogged by night and early morning as well. And read voraciously from what I can tell, as he was conversant on a wide range of topics. And flew on the weekends in some little planes where folks with fighter pilot fantasies could safely indulge with pilots, one of which was Lex, keeping you in the air and off the ground (except when that was what the flight plan required).
And it came to pass that Lex was offered the chance to fly fast movers again. Let slip the surly bonds of the cubicle and return to the skies to once again ply his trade as a naval aviator. Flying as an opposing force (OPFOR) for Navy pilots to help keep them honest by providing a skilled pilot, in an aircraft that they were not used to dealing with, flown by an adversary that would pounce were they to underestimate him. Being an experienced pilot he adapted to the new jet and flew again. And you could read it in his writing that he was fully alive again. And there were the occasional minor issues while flying this old bird of his. But he shared it all with us, in prose and video. And ultimately, flying one of these thoroughbreds of the sky caught up with him on Tuesday.
He posted, we discussed, and he didn't come back. The news showed up- an accident where Lex was flying at the time. The watch by the community on his last thread and the final, sorrowful confirmation that the accident was Lex and he had not survived. And we grieved. And we posted. And we exchanged emails amongst ourselves. And we came together. This community of widely varying people came together. First to grieve, then to honor him. From across the country and across the world. They reached out to each other to meet, to remember, to honor, and to celebrate the life of a man who had become their friend, in some cases their mentor.
During an email exchange with one, she wondered if her experience in grief over his passing was weird. My response to her was, “Not weird at all. Ultimately, each of us have to deal with our grief separately and without the blessing of Lex's silver tongued turn of phrase. More importantly than the endless memory of the Internet, where nothing is ever really forgotten, there are thousands of people whose lives have been touched by him. Each of those is a point of light that collectively are a greater testament to the man than anything that he could consciously have done. While Lex lives within us, while we tell people stories about him, while we share him with people that never knew him he lives on. His legacy is not just his prolific and erudite prose, it is all of us that miss him and will not let him be forgotten. So, tomorrow night lift a glass and celebrate his life and our fortune in knowing him.”
And so they came together to celebrate this life. Yeah, those relationships that they were unaware of? They discovered that they were friends who could come together and support each other. They gathered in their groups to meet for the first time in the flesh. Friends who had not yet met, as it were. Here in Vermont we discovered that we will continue the ground component of our friendship. I suspect that many others discovered the same thing, they were friends that hadn't met and were pleasantly surprised at the meeting.
So, on this past Tuesday a light went out. And in response a constellation went on.