We were on the back deck of our house on Pensacola Beach last week when the Blue Angels brought Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss home for his last sunset pass over Santa Rosa Island, Perdido Key and downtown Pensacola.
It was a striking scene, a lone F/A-18 in the vivid colors of the Blue Angels, tight on the wing of Fat Albert, the C-130 support aircraft that is itself an iconic symbol of the team.
We were far from alone in watching. Across the Pensacola area people had come outside of their homes and businesses in anticipation of the flight, which usually is a much more joyous occasion. Team members said Capt. Kuss “absolutely loved” this traditional Blue Angels salute to the community, but the joy had been drained from this final flight by his death in a crash in Smyrna, Tennessee.
There are things that bring communities together, and for Pensacola pride in being the home of the Blue Angels is one of those.
There are also things that bring teams like the Blue Angels together, and one of those is the long hours of practice in the air perfecting the routines they use to awe the millions of people who attend their airshows.
So for the Blues, escorting the body of Capt. Kuss home to Pensacola brings closure to the team, whose every member understands what he risks in performing the Angels’ intricate aerobatics.
And for the Pensacola community, seeing the dramatic flight also brought closure, as did the candlelight memorial ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park.
A strong society requires a shared culture where people of different economic backgrounds, races, religion, politics, what have you, can move past their differences. The concept of the mixing pot isn’t that we all have to be the same, it means finding the places where different people can find their shared values.
And so ritual ties people together by emphasizing the strength of community over the individual, because each of us has to give up something to be part of something larger.
For a community like Pensacola to be strong, there have to be shared places, shared rituals, where our separate ways come together and we are reminded that we are a part of something.
Again, one of those shared things is taking pride in being the home of the Blue Angels. As Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward put it, "We bleed the Blue Angels in Pensacola. We are synonymous with the Blue Angels."
And when one of the Angels is lost, it is felt across the community, despite the fact that most of us never met him, or even knew his name until he was lost.
The ritual of the Blue Angels’ Sunday arrival, “smokin’ the beach” as they put it, is usually a fun event that ignites a thrill in the hearts of those who see it. On this occasion, I don’t think anyone who watched the final sunset flight of Capt. Kuss will forget it. No matter what you were doing, or what you had done that day, seeing the two aircraft in this last salute forced you out of your own little world, for at least a moment.