(Pensacola, Florida; May 13, 2022) – Mach Two Max passed away last month at the age of 78, and, while the world is not a ‘smaller’ or ‘lesser’ place without her, it is a different place now that this quiet pioneer has entered the mystic realm of myth.
Patricia Maxine Mallette was fluent in three languages (English, Spanish, and Thai), taught English to students as a master instructor at the Defense English Language Institute for many years, and worked as a federal civilian at Eglin Air Force Base for a few decades.
Oh, yes, she was also an active duty Navy officer and she became the first woman to fly at the speed of Mach 2 while riding in a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II in 1966. She was officially recognized for this by McDonnell Douglas with the call sign of ‘Mach Two Max.’ She was extremely proud to be part of the tiny fraction of American women serving in the military during the Vietnam Era.
I knew her as Mrs. Mallette, Marie’s mom and my ‘second’ high school mother. For all her pride, Pat (as she firmly directed me to call her once I hit adulthood) rarely extolled her own adventurous life. She’d fuss over her husband, Tom, an Air Force officer with a storied career of his own. She’d pretend to be the stern matriarch poking her head in on us when the high school gang was ganged up at Marie’s house doing such delinquent things as watching Star Trek movies (we were rebels, I tell you!)…only to then zing one of us with some one-liner before leaving again, a twinkle in her eye.
Niceville and Valparaiso are twin cities butted up against one another across Tom’s Bayou here in northwest Florida. My family settled in Niceville in 1986; Marie’s family settled in Valparaiso a few years earlier. Marie and I met our sophomore year at Niceville High School, and we’d become fast friends by our junior year. There was nothing romantic here (in fact, I introduce Marie to her husband, Mike, at a football game in September of 1988); we were just part of an oddball misfit crowd. We were something that was then a bit of a pejorative, but today runs the world: we were geeks. We loved science fiction and adventure, but we also loved history and sports. We all seemed to have one foot in two worlds. My folks and Marie’s folks both understood this because each of our parents shared that same experience in many ways as they grew up.
By our junior year at Niceville High, Marie and I’s gang of friends had largely settled on hanging out at one of two houses: mine and Marie’s. My folks and Marie’s folks both loved having kids over. They also believed it was better to have us tearing up the VCRs at home instead of hanging out on a street corner somewhere. Their philosophy worked; all the kids in our group have gone on to have successful, healthy lives. My folks, and Tom and Pat, were our gang’s ‘high school parents.’
I lost touch with Mr. and Mrs. Mallette…er, Tom and Pat, over the years as happens when life happens (you grow up, get a job, join the Navy, get kidnapped by space aliens, the usual). We briefly reconnected when she and Tom gave my fiancé and I loads of advice and stories about marriage back in 2010. Sadly, my own marriage didn’t last, but my ex and I are still great friends (we’re that classic ‘better friends than married couple’), and we still laugh over some of the stories Tom and Pat shared.
Sadly, Tom passed away back in 2016, but I reconnected with Pat in 2017 after I retired from the Navy (for the record, the space-aliens comment was a joke). I stopped by her house to surprise her, and she had blue hair. Yep. Bright blue. Well, that week it was blue. She told me during our visit she’d planned to go pink the next week. Another time she was sporting a full-on rainbow do. The woman never quit!
I’m not going to make it sound like Pat didn’t struggle learning to live again after Tom died. They’d been married for well over 30 years, but Pat never shied away from the need to learn to live on her own again. Hence the wildly colored hair; she told me it was small way she could keep moving forward and having fun on her own while building her new life. It takes a remarkably astute person to find wisdom in something as simple as dying one’s hair brightly assorted colors, but that was Pat!
I last saw her in person over Thanksgiving in 2017. I got to spend Thanksgiving with Marie and Mike, who had relocated back to Niceville themselves a few years earlier after decades of working around the country. Pat was there along with some other relatives (I was the only non-blood relative out of something like 15 people). Thanksgiving Day in 2017 was the day before I embarked on my year-long Grand Tour, seeing all 50 states and some of Canada. Pat was excited I not only had the chance for such a road trip, but that I was also going to actually do it. She shared some of her and Tom’s favorite sites with me, and I included a few of those on my tour. For instance, I’d already planned to see the Grand Canyon, but seeing it while having the context of Pat’s stories about her and Tom’s visit in their younger days provided a deeper meaning to the experience. I wasn’t just seeing it for myself, I was getting to share in a multi-generational story that was still being written.
And that, my fellow vets, brings me to the greatest lesson Pat (Mach Two Max) imparted to those wise enough to listen: how much of an impact we can have on the world when we live in the now. Pat was justly proud of her accomplishments, but she always looked forward, thus she viewed Marie and Mike and their kids as her favorite hobby. After all, having a successful daughter and son-in-law raising capable grandchildren meant Pat and Tom’s own story had a sequel happening in the now. She did not ignore the past, nor did she pretend it was all peaches and roses, but she kept it in context by living in the now.
I shamelessly stole a line from Doctor Who when talking to Marie after Pat’s memorial service last month. I told Marie that, while Pat’s story is now over, the song never ends. Pat understood we’re all part of that song, and, as long as we live in the now and contribute to our world in the now, then all the glories of the past remain as part of the melody we’re continuing to write.
Pat’s passing has now reduced my circle of high school adult figures to my own parents. I know my socks are blessed right off my feet because my own folks are alive and healthy, but life is going forward. I don’t like that reality, but, then, I suspect none of us much do. Pat quietly showed us how to face this reality by just doing it. Even after we, the next generation, were grown up, she still expected us to do great things while welcoming us into her circle of adult friends because that was what was happening in the now.
Earning the call sign ‘Mach Two Max’ is enough to earn Patricia Maxine Mallette a place in the halls of Navy history (forget her freaky powerful language skills!). But, to me and many others, she was first Mrs. Mallette (and, after we were adults, just Pat), our ‘second’ high school mom who intentionally became the crazy lady with rainbow hair and a ready laugh at the silliest thing, because the silliest thing was happening now, and she was determined to always live in the now.
Pat’s story has concluded; that mystical leather-bound volume chronicling the great romance she and Tom enjoyed now takes its place on the shelf of history. However, Tom and Pat’s song rolls on, mostly in their family and grandchildren, but also in those of us who didn’t know back in high school just how remarkable a woman Marie’s mom was.
Mach Two Max has gone ashore. We have the watch, and the song rolls on.
– Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/K3tZY4tIfHs
– Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, and press 1; or, go to: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/hotline
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