My father joined up as a 17 year old and spent most of the rest of his life in the service until he was forced into medical retirement when cancer took over his lungs. As a young man from South Jersey, he spent time on the Aleutian Island of Adak, not far from where I now live. He had the opportunity to live in France with his bride, a small town Jersey girl who took a ship across the sea to join her new husband in another country. What an adventure it must have been for both of them! From France to New Jersey to Louisiana to Georgia to Germany, back to NJ and finishing up in Texas, they piled an increasingly larger brood of kids, pets and belongings into a VW bus with the road visible through the floorboard or a station wagon with no air conditioning, cloth diapers drying out the passenger window, as they motored around the countryside or moved on to the next assignment. My brother recently wrote a blog about his family's road trip, which reminded me so much of Dad yelling, "Who's driving, you or me?" when any of us would beg him to stop for directions as we circled some unknown city trying to find our destination.
Dad started out as a cook, later cross-trained to be a crew chief on B52's and then a flight engineer on C130's and C141's. He never had to go to war but spent some time on "secret" missions that I still don't know anything about. He was a drinker and a cusser and an authoritarian who had a hard time expressing his emotions (except when drinking and cussing). He wasn't really a lot of fun for a girl to have for a father, though I remember receiving a few affectionate letters and some "paint by number" art that he finished when he was TDY, playing card games at home, traveling around Europe, attending family reunions in NJ, sitting at the bar and having a coke while he drank beer and played shuffleboard with his buddies.
My dad and I had a complicated relationship at best. I feared him when I was young and I was often angry with him when I was a teenager. We disagreed about many issues and I am sure he wondered how in the world he ended up with a daughter like me. He swore I would get him kicked out of the military with my "subversive" peace literature coming to the house on base during the Vietnam War. I was disrespectful and "talked back" when I was supposed to listen. I hung out with unsavory characters. Bless his heart, he probably wondered what happened to that good little girl who got A's in Catholic school in Georgia and took Sister Mary Clare's name for Confirmation because she was her favorite nun. My father died at age 42 (wow, how young that sounds to me now) when I was not quite 19. Though we had made our peace, we never had the luxury of becoming better acquainted as we both aged. I wonder sometimes what we would talk about now, if we would be able to sit together and have an easy conversation, visit each other's homes, share stories with a laugh about those difficult growing-up years. What kind of grandfather (and great-grandfather) would he have been?
These days, I look at my father's life and realize he was doing the best he could under the circumstances he encountered, from his own difficult childhood to a society changing in ways he did not relish. He gave us lots of opportunities to experience parts of the world that we would never have seen--how many kids get to explore castles in Germany, camp in the Black Forest, find a grandmother's ancestral village, sleep in youth hostels, slide down ramps in the salt mines of Austria and wander through a miniature village in Holland, visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and ride horses in Texas? My Air Force childhood helped me to be open minded, curious, accepting, self reliant, and adventurous. It gave me the gifts of lifelong friends, an interest in the larger world, an appreciation of cultures other than my own, and a sense of social justice. It led me to be a social worker. It influenced me to strive for a more nonviolent world, where war is not our first choice and we can figure out better ways to solve our problems.
My father and I would most assuredly disagree about the tasks the military has taken on lately, but that's not where I want to focus tonight. Thanks, Dad, and Happy Veterans Day.