For a little while now, I've known it was time to go. I've spent almost seven years of my career at Laughlin Air Force Base flying with the 85th. Eight if you include the 6 months at Pilot Instructor Training in San Antonio as part of the deal. Once I realized that my time was coming to an end, I started noticing details about the place that I hadn't before--things that make this place, and the experience of being a primary pilot training instructor, somehow worth it in the end.
When a student in Air Force UPT goes on his first solo flight, it is a pretty big deal. The vast majority of kids that wash out do so prior to achieving this goal. Quite a few still falter before finishing the program, but the first time you solo a $5M aircraft, you feel like the king of the world. For decades, when a student lands after his first solo his classmates carry him to tank of water that each class decorates. It is normally filled putrid water that's been out in the sun for the duration of the class being pre-solo. They toss him fully clothed into the pool as part of the baptism of becoming an Air Force pilot. As part of the tradition, there is an unwritten rule that if you are able to make it from the jet back to your flight room without being dunked--the flight owes you a case of your choice of beverage.
As you would expect, no one escapes their dunk. Even the very rare individual (we had one recently change from his flight suit into a FedEx uniform, grab a handcart, and try to "deliver" boxes to his flight room--he was caught) that makes it back to the flight room is summarily tackled and carried back to the dunk tank.
One of the little details I've noticed recently surrounds this tradition. Our hallways are carpeted here. When a kid comes back into the building to change his soaked clothes, he leaves a long trail of wet footprints down the hall. To me, it resembles a trail left by a ghost. Every student that has come through this building in pursuit of the coveted wings has left this trail behind them. To see the trail warms my heart that once again, my instructors have taken a kid who knew nothing about flying and taught him how to master the skies.
To leave that trail means that you have just had one of the most significant events in your life--so recent that the water has yet to evaporate from the steps you have taken.