Sarah Morgan

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Book Review: Topgun Days

I have to correct two impressions about Topgun Days before I begin.

One. My brother Matt, a Navy pilot himself, was skeptical when I told him I was reading it. To be specific, he thought it “reek[ed] of self-congratulatory arrogance”. Keep in mind that his call sign is Sunshine. But the point is, after reading Dave Baranek‘s book, I found it to be a totally mistaken assumption.

Two. I logged it with three stars, which disappointed Matt. (Note: Neither of these Matts is Matt Hall. All have been in my life for 20+ years. It gets confusing around here.) But I’m crazy particular – and, unlike these boys, I’m not a military buff myself. I only know the difference between a carrier and a destroyer because of Battleship. (Hey, who knew you could play Battleship on paper? Thanks, Wikipedia!)

But here’s the thing: I did really enjoy Topgun Days. And I think my non-buff-ery makes me an even better judge. I had a good time reading it, so if you’re at all into military aviation, not just by proxy like I am, you’ll be rapt.

Dave Baranek was one of the naval aviators who designed and carried out the flight scenes, dialogue, and overall accuracy of “Top Gun“, and that part of the book is full of fun backstage info – which call signs were real, what quotes were taken straight from life, how the flight sequences were shot, what it was like with the stars (who weren’t that famous yet – and actually sucked at volleyball!).

But the book title is a bit misleading, because it’s much more than those weeks. Dave was a Radar Intercept Officer (think Goose). Then he was chosen to go to Topgun. Then he became a Topgun instructor himself. So if you’re looking for a mid-80s inside-Hollywood tell-all, this is not that book; but as a memoir, this is a plainly told story of massive accomplishments. The movie was cool, but the real thing is cooler, isn’t it?

What I particularly appreciated is how good he is at explaining. It can be hard to have a conversation with my brother that isn’t stilted. Military life has so many acronyms, for one thing – and for another, aviation is a vastly different type of workplace. It’s a foreign language about a foreign land. So I loved how accessible Dave made his world.

The funny thing is, Dave did one thing in a very military way, and while this is exactly what refutes my brother’s assumption, I found it confusing at first. He was extraordinarily matter-of-fact. The flights and activities that would get a rock-and-roll montage, if this book was a movie – they’re another day at the office. Early in his career, Dave’s superior reminds him that he does a job like everyone else – he’s just lucky enough to like his. He clearly took that to heart. At first, the contrast between the tone he was using and what he was describing was confusing, but I grew to appreciate it.

What I came to see is that the moments that were the most harrowing or rewarding weren’t what I’d guess. While of course it must be wild to roll all over the sky, the real fear happened when he was forced to bail out – and the real pride came when he delivered his first lecture as a Topgun instructor.

The one jarring note in the book is that his wife of many years is relegated to an startlingly cursory mention at the end. It’s as if he realized at the last minute that he had to explain who the lady in the pictures was. I’m sure he had reasons – hey, maybe that’s how she wanted it – but it felt odd.

Anyway, it’s easy to forget that shiny jets are being handled by regular people having regular careers, going through regular life – not action figures or video-game characters. I loved how he self-deprecatingly related a time, after the film release, that he was on base wearing an instructor shirt. A little boy notices and excitedly says, “Mommy, look! That man’s in Topgun!” It’s a thrill for Dave – momentarily. The mother replies, jaded, “Son, these days everyone’s in Topgun.”

If you’re interested in military aviation, or just in memoirs in general, you’ll really enjoy this. It’s an easy read, a fun one, and an interesting one too. And thanks to his PR people, who provided me a review copy (which I’m passing to Matt in accordance with my policy of Find Books Great Homes), I also know you can get it on crazy-good sale for e-books right now ($4.99!). Get it for Kindle here, or for Nook here. And if you want to hear more about it, I dug up an interview that Dave did on Sirius, which you can hear here and here.

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