It takes a lot to make me cry.
Not that I’m a “tough ol’ broad” or thick skinned. I’m neither. I am just rarely sad.
On Facebook today, I saw photos of my brother-in-law, Rob, in full Army uniform with his fist tightly wrapped around the handgrip of a large, sophisticated gun. Just under the visor of his camouflage cap, his eyes could be seen, looking intensely through the scope. I stared at his white knuckled hand, his eyes, his focus. I clicked forward to see the rest of the pictures of his unit and saw another picture of Rob being fitted with body armor by a member of the Singapore army. I wondered if the vest would protect him from a weapon such as the one he was holding in a previous frame.
And then it got me. Fear? Worry? Sadness. There went the tears. I was right back in 1969, an Air Force brat on Clinton Sherman Air Force base in Burns Flat, Oklahoma. Not too many fathers were walking around on base. I was lucky to have mine home every night instead of “over in ‘Nam,” like all the other dads. My dad worked on base in hospital administration. He wasn’t a combat soldier.
There’s a line in David Morehouse’s book entitled Psychic Warrior: The True Story of America’s Foremost Psychic Spy, that resonates with me. He writes:
“I spent my childhood in the army; I was a young nomad, traveling from post to post with my family. I knew nothing of life except what a soldier and a soldier’s wife taught me, and I never consciously expected to be anything but a soldier. When I was young I played games with soldiers’ children, and we always imitated our fathers. We were very proud of them even though we seldom saw them.
Photographs from my youth are filled with images of plastic weapons, with miniature vehicles painted olive green with the words “U.S. Army” emblazoned on them. Every aspect of my young life centered on the army, its way of life…”
I played with soldiers’ children, too, as did my five sisters and my brother. Especially when their dads were on a tour. We filled our friends’ time with a purpose. Idle time for a child whose father was serving in Vietnam was not healthy.
In school, we knew whose dad was home and whose dad was in Vietnam. I don’t know if it was just the way Oklahomans treat one another or if that is how military families regard life, but we were careful with each other. We played a lot of pranks. There’s a certain levity that was present. We used humor as a distraction from the times we were in. If you could make someone laugh or smile when you saw them at the commissary or at school, you felt good about yourself, because chances were they had a father or husband who could be one of the following: MIA, POW, wounded, or in combat.
A year after we were stationed in Oklahoma, the base closed, and we moved to Izmir, Turkey. For three school years, we went to school at a renovated tobacco factory. That was as connected to home as we would get. Except there was a beautiful park out in the middle of nowhere, miles outside of Izmir, called Bayrakli Park, where military families went on day trips. We drove for what seemed like an hour to the six-year old I was the first time we went.
We drove over narrow dirt roads, rarely seeing another vehicle, over two sets of train tracks where we usually got held up. Once we smelled the slaughterhouse, a smell that we could never fully brace ourselves for, a chorus of “PU”s and complaints to roll up the windows ensued. We knew once we passed the slaughterhouse on the right, we were nearing the park that looked like a country club.
We always brought a picnic lunch, a large Coleman thermos, and would swim in the pool all day with friends from school. I remember lying on my back in clover and looking up at the deep, blue sky over the Mediterranean and thinking, “We would never let the air get polluted. That would be stupid. We would never let the water get polluted. What would we drink?”
I wandered around the lawns of the park and found some pine cones under a tree that had seeds inside them. I shook the seeds out and banged them between two rocks and ate the nut inside. Those nuts are $10/pound and are delicious with pesto. I remember how safe I felt in Turkey, and relieved that no one talked about the Vietnam war. I wasn’t even sure if it was still going on. The only memorable news we received from the states was when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
I distinctly remember walking about Bayrakli Park and feeling a burden of worry lifted. I could finally forget about the war. None of my classmates’ fathers were serving in the war. Families were whole. There wasn’t any television. There were no phones. The news on the radio and in newspapers was in Turkish. I’m sure my father received bulletins at work, but he never talked about it.
After three years of ignorant bliss, we returned to the United States, to Westover Air Force Base, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Nixon was President. Massachusetts was the only state that voted for his opponent, George McGovern. McGovern was on bumper stickers all over the base, next to POW and MIA bumper stickers. The stress of the war was alive and kicking on Powell Street, where four families lived.
Two family’s dads were home; two were in combat. The two in combat were pilots. Every time news of a plane crash came through we were on pins and needles. I think Major Laffey, on the other side of our duplex, flew a bomber and Major Marshall, across from us, flew a first-aid helicopter.
One week, Major Laffey was thought to be dead, missing or a prisoner. His family of four kids and Mrs. Laffey hadn’t heard from him, which was out of the ordinary. The tension on Powell Street was palpable. It was hard to go out and play. The day word came that the mail was held up in Germany and Major Laffey was okay, we celebrated. Everyone who knew the Laffey’s was relieved.
More good news came. Major Marshall across the street was told he could come home. He was planning to retire after what was his second or third tour. His children were out of high school. Powell Street was elated. It was looking like the war was going to end soon. Everyone was a mix of happy and relieved.
Then, within a day, two soldiers showed up at Mrs. Marshall’s house. Shortly after they left, Mrs. Marshall began throwing khaki-colored clothing and helmets and medals, ready-to-eat dehydrated meals, parachutes, everything the Air Force had given her husband, on the front lawn. When she was done, the heap of her husband’s remains was the size of a Volkswagen, parked on the lawn where we played croquet with the Soto’s, who lived next door to the Marshall’s.
This is what awakens inside me when I see Rob in his military uniform, pictured with the other men and women in his unit. My view from Powell Street shows me there’s a one in four chance. The Army hasn’t told Rob that he’ll see combat. But they can’t promise that he won’t. It’s that not knowing. It’s the two kids and the wonderful, supportive wife at home, while he’s in training in Singapore, a stone’s throw from trouble, that feels so close to home.
Copyright 2009, AmyMusing. This essay first appeared in AmyMusings, http://www.amymusings.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.