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Sunday, May 31, 2009

You Can't Unclench Your Teeth

Time creeps up on you and once you're past a memory of an event, it just seems to disappear. I think in this case, some of the memory loss is due to the Monday holiday law and how it affected when we observed Memorial Day this year, because the memories are always tied to the Memorial Day that my father died.

Walking after dinner last night I realized, with a start, twenty-eight years ago I was still in the US Air Force (don't worry, NOT as a pilot or anything even close to important; you know how movies with crowd scenes have 'extras'? I was one of those) and was standing Staff Duty watch at my assignment, the American Forces Network HQ, in those days, before The Wall came tumbling down and peace, love and harmony ruled our planet in Frankfurt am Main in West Germany.

It had just turned three o'clock in the morning, I had the radio on and Jan Wood (who pulled the ridiculously early shift Milt Fullerton had once worked while stringing for ABC Radio) had just played the sounder and started his cast in the newstank, when the telephone rang at the switchboard. At three in the morning, not a lot of good was on the other end I feared and I was right.

It was an operator from the American Red Cross Family Notification Program in Mannheim and she asked for the newsroom as was the routine. Once connected, she would say the code of the day, verifying who she was, and then state the name, rank and unit of the service member who did not yet know that s/he had a family emergency/death in the family 'back home.' Everyone in Europe, it seemed, listened to us. We were so pervasive, I got mail from listeners in Scotland, Norway and in Iceland who would ask about a particular song I had played in the middle of a set of records. I seriously believed you could tune us in on a toaster. We were everyone's soundtrack.

I told the Red Cross lady the newscaster was on the air and offered to take the information myself. When she spelled the last name, I realized it was my last name and when the first names matched, I was able to tell her 'and he's asked to return home for a death in the family' and have her confirm that course of action. She asked me to read back the notification, to assure her I had it and would relay it as was standard operating procedure. I told her I was the serviceman who had just learned his father had died.

She apologized though I never figured out for what. I waited for Jan to finish his newscast and carried the Red Cross log book back to him. I stood there while he read the one page summary of conversation, signed the receipt on the bottom and looked up at me. When he did, I nodded slightly, and with my shift now over, I went back to my desk to pull together my thoughts for the trip home. When my boss, Bob Matthes, came in later he was as kind as he could be in helping me depart on emergency leave, get a lift to the Frankfurt Flughafen and flying into JFK in New York.

It's odd how I cannot remember who picked me up, if anyone did. I do remember a bus ride somewhere in Jersey to somewhere else in Jersey and eventually walking down a long and still-dark-in-the-early-morning-light-of-day-road on which my parents had built a sprawling house.
A house, if not actually at the end of the world, so close was it, you could see the end of the world from the backyard.

My dad and I did not get along, if by 'not get along' you mean loathed one another. For many years, before and after his death, I thought it was because we were so different but I've realized it's more because we're so much alike. I think from the time I could talk I said 'no' to everything he ever wanted of me and for me.

My parents' house was bedlam. Only the three youngest children were still living with my parents; the oldest, my sister Kara, a senior in high school (I think) was just weeks away from graduation, her younger sister, Jill, in one of the middle grades of high school and Adam, looking very solemn and all alone, I guess was in elementary school. I still feel bad about abandoning them for all those years, all those years ago. Sorry doesn't start to cover it and all I can offer is an apology and regret for my cowardice from then until now.

I had escaped and after me, a sister and a younger brother had both gone their own ways but, in candor, I had gone the farthest and fastest to another continent and another culture. I had met and married a person whose own family was as damaged in its way as I always thought mine was. Maybe that's why she and I have been at this for (closing in on) thirty-two years this October. But in my father's house, that night and the next day and the next night, I didn't know where the journey would take me.

The funeral director kept calling my mother, 'Mom', for (I'm sure) grief-management reasons. I remember nothing else about him except that he kept doing that until I felt compelled to tell him very quietly mine would the last face in this life he'd ever see if he did not stop. I'm not sure my mother even realized the man was there. I traveled in my uniform which were all the clothes I had brought with me. I don't why I packed only Air Force uniforms. It did make it easy to spot me at the funeral, at the graveside and at the wake where scores of people whom none of the rest of us had ever known, but who knew my father, stopped in to say how sorry they were and how, if there were ever anything they could do, to please call.

None of us ever did, but that's okay because none of you meant a word of it, so we're even except for where we got odd. The afternoon my father was buried, the day after I had returned to the States, a relative took me to the airport for the return flight. She spotted the security sensors, primitive in comparison to today of course, and told me I should go in alone as she 'thought' she was holding (drugs). The notion of NOT knowing if you knew you had narcotics on you struck me as funny and I laughed as I checked in for the flight back to where my heart and home was.

And I've kept all of those memories tucked away as if in a photo album or shoebox never to be opened until a brief walk around the block on what should have been the Memorial Day weekend. "So you curl your lips around/The taste, the tears, and the hollow sound/That no one owns but you/No one owns but you."
-bill kenny

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