"You're not from the 'hood," his black classmates would taunt. "You don't know us."
"You're right, I don't," McKinney would answer back. What he didn't say was that he also didn't care. People automatically assumed he shared a common heritage and background with African-Americans because of the color of his skin. But he had never felt that bond. He came from a yuppie black family whose mother and father were well educated. The niche blacks expected him to occupy was alien to him. He never felt as comfortable with the African-Americans as he did with other cultures. It had rules of behavior, standards of conduct expected of him -- hip, jive, slow walk, Ebonics -- with which he had no experience and didn't care to have. He shared no sense of history with his black brothers. If he ever took the time to investigate, he thought he'd probably discover three or four generations of race mixing among his ancestors.
McKinney enrolled in Georgia Tech University at age sixteen and majored in civil engineering. The school was his second choice. A congressional appointment for the Naval Academy would have been no problem if he had been older, but the academy didn't accept sixteen-year-olds. He was even too young to qualify for a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship at Georgia Tech. But for as long as he could remember, McKinney had wanted to be an astronaut. He would go crazy if he had a job where he had to sit behind a desk all his life. He wanted to fly. And in the beginning, not just any plane. He had his future carefully plotted. He would fly F/A-18 Hornets, the Navy's premier attack fighter for the future. Fast but not too fast. Easy to handle, seasoned pilots had told him, the best ticket for being accepted into the NASA program. Space shuttle pilots had to have experience in tactical jets.
McKinney thought his chances of becoming an astronaut were good -- simply because he was willing to do anything to achieve the goal. The only roadblock in his way was a phrase that haunted every student pilot -- "the needs of the Navy." Practically all his classmates at Pensacola wanted to fly the glamour carrier jets, the F/A-18s or F-14s. But the Navy had more than a dozen different types of aircraft -- jets, propeller-driven planes, helicopters -- some of which never landed on an aircraft carrier. Students were assigned to them based on their performance and even more importantly on what the Navy needed at any given time to fill cockpits. What a student wanted to fly was a secondary consideration. McKinney prayed that the Navy wouldn't suddenly need a lot of helicopter pilots when he finished flight school. He had heard of an astronaut who had begun his Naval career as a helicopter pilot, then had managed to transfer to jets in order to qualify for the shuttle program. But such moves were rare. Navy pilots were usually stuck for the rest of their flying careers with the planes they were assigned from flight school. Anything less than tactical jets would derail his dream of being an astronaut.
Men and women became officers in the Navy usually in one of three ways: through the Naval Academy, Naval ROTC in college, or Officer Candidate School. Since McKinney had been too young for the academy or ROTC, he entered OCS as soon as he graduated from Georgia Tech, which took four and a half years in order to complete its more demanding engineering degree. OCS, which for flight candidates was held at Pensacola, was designed to be a culture shock for youngsters whose only discipline in the past came from mom and dad. Males' heads were shaved. Females kept their hair cropped short. OCS candidates wore baggy green fatigue pants, T-shirts, Nike running shoes, silver helmets that rattled on their heads, and a thousand-mile stare from little sleep and constant movement.
McKinney was the type of person who always blew things up in his own mind, always a worrier. By the time he reported Sunday morning for the first day of OCS, he was petrified of what was about to happen to him.
Copyright © 1998 by Douglas C. Waller
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