My Dad had a love-hate relationship with his US Air Force career. On the one hand, he loved the work he did for NSA during the Cold War as a Russian analyst. On the other hand, he hated all of the “chickenshit” rules and regulations, as well as how much time he had to spend away from his family. But he always voiced his distaste in his own signature style of humor.
When I was not quite two years old and my sister not quite one, my father was assigned to a year in Shemya, Alaska — a barren island in the Aleutians where the only companionship other than his fellow airmen were the ubiquitous Arctic foxes and one huge Malemute named Boozer (the second, pictured), who shared their beer and wandered the base in a drunken haze.
My mother, sister, and I stayed with my mother’s parents on their ninety-some acre farm, along with one aunt, two great-aunts, several pigs, many cows, a duck or two, chickens, and guinea hens. We children enjoyed tagging along with our grandfather while he silently performed his chores, and listening to our grandmother’s stories, but we often missed our father — who came to have a mythic significance.
Living among older folks in a family with a long history represented vividly by a family cemetary within walking distance, casual conversation often turned towards those who had gone on before. I remember one time, sitting in my mother’s lap at the table with all these relatives discussing people who had died and of course someone inevitably said that everyone has to go sometime, as if that were a new idea. Well, for me it was — and I thought to myself, “One day all these people here will be gone, and we’ll talk about them.” And now they all are, except for my sister, my mother, and myself.
My mother, who was then a Southern Baptist, often sang us this hymn:
For God so loved the world
He gave his only Son
To die upon a tree
From sin to set me free
One day he’s coming back
What glory that will be
Wonderfullest Love for me
At that tender age, we didn’t pick up on the gruesomeness of a mythology in which a father will sacrifice his son for the sake of his own botched creation, nor did we perceive the inherent solipsism of the last line. What I picked up on was the line “One day he’s coming back,” which is what Mommy always said about Daddy.
“Mommy, did Daddy die?”
Hmm, let’s see. Given someone who will be coming back someday, the probability that they died first could be computed as the probability that people who die first come back afterwards, times the probability of their having died in the first place, divided by the probability of their coming back whether or not they had died. But I lacked sufficient data to plug into Bayes’ formula. Not to mention a complete lack of understanding of logic in general. My little brain then operated more analogically — and not very precisely at that. More allegorical, as are the thoughts of most children and many adults. But neither had I been introduced to the concept of blasphemy, which helps to keep allegorical thinking within prescribed bounds.
My mother corrected my error, and I’m fairly certain that was the last time anyone ever confused my Dad with Jesus Christ.
When he finally got the orders to return from Shemya, my Dad had to find whatever flights he could hop from Alaska all the way back to any airport within driving or thumbing distance of southern Virginia. He managed to get to Seattle, but everything out of Seattle to anywhere not in Alaska was booked solid for days. So there he was, stranded not far from where I’m sitting now, wishing he could find a way all the way across the continent. It was overcast and raining (imagine that). He never spoke well of Seattle afterwards.
Dad entered a nearby bar and began scouting around. He fell into conversation with a fellow who was leaving that night on a plane to Chicago, who offered to buy a drink for a man in uniform. My father bought the second round, and they soon became fast friends. Dad was a handy drinker, and his new buddy struggled to keep up. Dad bought the next round as well, to his companion’s high accolades regarding his newfround friend’s most suberp generrossity. After sheveral more rounds, our eshteemed pashengerr began to whynder won the bar was turnin’. Then he suddenly noticed the time and realized that he needed to hurry to his gate. He said a quick goodbye, stood up, and promptly passed out. Dad lifted the ticket neatly from his jacket and headed for his flight to Chicago.
Once on the plane, he was finally able to get some sleep — and he dreamt that he was in a plane that was going down, without hope of survival. In his dream, he looked out the window and saw “UNITED” written across the wing in big letters — just before he awoke, relieved to realize that he wasn’t on a United flight.
In Chicago, he worked hard to find a flight eastward, and finally secured one heading to Dulles. He just had time to get on board, but he was in high spirits. He was heading home! An elderly lady in a nearby seat whimpered that she was afraid of flying. My father, still in uniform, assured her on the safety of modern air travel. While thus engaged, he happened to look beyond her and out the window. Across the wing, written in big letters: “UNITED”.
All during that flight Dad worried he would never see his family again, alternately chastising himself for his superstitious fear, all the while hiding his consternation from his elderly fellow-passenger. They landed at Dulles without incident.
Then, Dad got orders for Fort Meade, Maryland. NSA Headquarters, and also close to one of the best eye surgeons in the country, who would help to make my right eye functional, if not very well aligned. We had a good life in Maryland, with Dad coming home every night.
One of the memories imprinted as if on my retina was the day we moved into that apartment on the second floor with a balcony. Dad drove us in the blue/white ’58 Plymouth around behind the building, where one of the movers waved to us. We went up into the apartment, where boxes lay scattered about. Dad found a big living-room chair, sat down it, and said “Come here, son!” With a big grin he scooped me up in his arms and pressed me against his prickly face, reeking of Old Spice and cigarettes. It’s still one of my favorite memories.
When it came time for new orders, they told my Dad, “You have a choice: Trebizond, Turkey or Peshawar, Pakistan.” Both were remote — no family allowed. That, added to Dad’s frustration at not having been promoted for over five years due only to quotas, broke it. “Nope. I’ve got one more choice: Gretna, Virginia” — hometown to both of my parents and their ancestors for hundreds of years. Forever afterwards, Dad cursed the Air Force for forcing him to decide between his family and a career the likes of which he never found again.
On his last day at NSA, my father wore his dress blues to work — which naturally drew attention, but even more so because of a single personalized addition he had made. As Dad left at the end of the day, he happened to meet a Colonel at the door. After the customary salutes, the Colonel asked his reason for wearing the dress uniform. My father informed him that today was his last day in the service. The Colonel wished him luck and gave him leave to go.
My father didn’t dare look back as he walked away, but he could hear the Colonel laughing behind him. He had caught sight of Dad’s unique wardrobe customization: pinned to the coattails of his dress blues — a sprig of mistletoe.