Kathryn discusses her discover of what she had become from growing up “military.”
Dad was always like Zeus.
Unapproachable, noble, given to adventures in far away lands. I grew up with the smells of green nomex flight suits and cigars, bonding to men who lived life at full speed, on the edge.
My first memory is being in the Base Exchange. I was around two, and I remember sensing a presence behind me. I turned around and saw the combat boots, the green nomex flight suit.
The way mother tells it, they had to pry me off the officer—the stranger who was not my father. All I remember is grabbing both his legs, his face so far up I couldn’t see it, but thoroughly convinced in a way that only a two year old could be that this was my father. I remember refusing to let go, and hanging on for dear life. Afraid that if I let go, my father would leave again, no telling when he would be back.
My parents tell me my father spent the first two years of my life in Spain. The third year in Morrocco. He was home about one quarter of the time. The rest of the time he was flying B-47 Missions. We were based in Schilling, Kansas at the time, among the fourteen other places I subsequently lived.
Dad was never comfortable having a daughter. There was never any doubt in my mind of his love for me, or his high integrity level in the way he treated me. His comfort level with having a “girl child” was quite another matter. I was the oldest of four, and I was treated as an eldest son. I went to engineering school. I graduated in the top 5 percent of my class. I never allowed myself any emotional entanglement that would have interefered with the college education. There was never any question about it, nor was there any talking back. Ever. “Yes sir, Colonel Sir.”
I read the book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, by Mary Edwards Wertsch,and my life completely changed. I won’t drag you through the sordid psychological details, but for the first time Athena began to cut Zeus a little bit of slack.
My friend Michael, who had been accepted into the Naval Academy, in the course of many conversations, made me really begin to think about the cargo that Dad was flying back from Vietnam in the 60’s: Body Bags, Body Parts, young dead men. Michael also pointed out how protected I had been, about how my father had seen things about which I just did not want to know.
Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress made me realize that I was the member of a common subculture, and for the very first time, I quit trying to hard to fit in everywhere I went. It seems I had spent my whole life trying so hard to fit in, to blend in, that I had never asked the fundamental question of who I was trying to fit in with.
The greatest gift this book provided me was a healing with my father. I can honestly say the book gave me my father back. I read the book in August, and I went home to see my parents in December. That Christmas, I had the very first real conversation I ever had with my Dad. I even made him cry a little.
Michael told me not to do that again, that it was too hard on him. I agreed, but in a way I was satisfied. I had managed to pry through the gruffness, the anger, the commanding presence, to get to the vulnerability underneath. My father was a force to be reckoned with, but finally at last, I had the courage to speak my own opinion. The funny thing was, the world did not end.
Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress discusses the delayed maturation which so often happens with this kind of upbringing. For the adventures I have had, the family has had, I would not trade my childhood and teenage years for anything. However, I am finally in my 30’s falling into place, finding that my story is not that unusual, but shared. By finding the sharing, I have found my own unique tribe. By finding my tribe, I am developing a sense of home. By developing my sense of home, I am finding my place in the world.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. It gave me the courage to be honest with my father. By being honest with Dad, I now have a genuine relationship with him. That’s new, and it feels good.
Next time I go home, I am getting a copy of my favorite picture of my father. It was after one of those long 24 hour flights he would make. He is in a green nomex flight suit, with two days stubble. Yellow cap, and lit cigar, with the grin on his face that only a man’s man could have. I can still smell the Swisher Sweet Cigars when I look at this picture, I can still feel his warmth, his life, his power, and the sense of protection I have always felt.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on Military Brats Online.