Tuesday, May 31, 2016

We Lived in the Shadow of the Elms

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's affected when we observe Memorial Day because it was on Memorial Day, thirty-five years ago, that I learned my father died.

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 I 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.' 

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 of the servicemember they were trying to reach, 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 when my shift ended at seven, I went back upstairs to my desk in the Radio Ops office 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. 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-nine 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. I've kept all of those memories tucked away as if in a photo album or shoebox never to be opened until a random thought as I prepared to go back to work at the end of what should have been this year's Memorial Day weekend. 

I've now lived more years since he passed than I had when he passed. And while I, too, was already a husband, I became a father, twice, in the ensuing years. And if I had a dime for every time I wanted to ask him for an insight into something I was going through (and that was, and remains, hard for me to do because I am at least as stiff-necked as he was on asking for help) in I could easily buy a lot of folks at a bad day at the auction. 

But life is what happens when you're in the space between and differences so vast you fear they can never be bridged become just another reminder of how much my father's son I always was and always am.   
"Well I was young and I didn't know what to do
When I saw your best steps stolen away from you
Now I'll do what I can
I'll walk like a man
And I'll keep on walkin.'"
-bill kenny

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