Proud to serve his country, my father was a quiet man more prone to holding his patriotism and service in his heart than wearing it on his sleeve. Flash, pretense, and braggadocio had no place in his character, nor in his life. I can still hear him chiding my know-it-all teenage self, “Don’t let your alligator mouth out talk your tadpole butt.” He was good at getting straight to the point.
As I think of him daily and especially on this Memorial Day, I also embrace my family, my mother, sister and brother, who surrounded him with love and admiration, and allowed him to serve with distinction as he did. We were a team, his team.
My first recollection of the seriousness of my father’s job came in first grade, a memory burned into my head as certain as an ember would do the same on my skin. A fellow pilot in my Dad’s squadron bailed out of his jet over the eastern Atlantic, closer to Africa and Europe than the shores of the United States. I knew to keep quiet, and I listened to adult conversations weighted in anguish and gravity never realized under our roof. It was the first time I really thought of a plane falling out of the sky and the pilot descending into the vastness of the open ocean. And fighter jets at that time were buckets of bolts—mechanical, streamlined and shiny, but basically a huge jet engine strapped to wing, a cockpit and a prayer. Standing on the flight line, I once thought my head would explode from the mere level of roar and vibration of a taxiing F-100.
Mortality introduced itself to me that day. I never had really thought about death, never visualized my father’s plane falling out of the sky. The conversations, speculation, door knocks, and phone calls never seemed to end—grief consumed everyone on the base. Finally, word came that a search plane had spotted the pilot, my mom and dad’s friend, on a life raft. It terrified me to think of this man I knew, drifting in a life raft, all alone in the middle of the ocean. I couldn’t sleep that night, my active imagination no friend to me at that time. The next morning sobering news came; the pilot had not survived the night at sea. That’s when my memory kind of goes blur. There was crying. There was anger. There was disbelief, and then I remember little else. Perhaps I didn’t want to believe this could ever be the outcome, that all lives could be saved and that flying a shell of metal at supersonic speeds was a safe as driving a car or walking to the playground. From that day on, I never stopped worrying about my father.
On this day, this Memorial Day, let’s remember the men and women who protect our freedoms, our lives and our loves, and the families who keep them strong. My father never glorified war, and it fact he once told me that the best war was the one prevented. He never talked about his time served in Vietnam, brushes with death, or the lost lives of his friends and fellow servicemen, but he never forgot them either. He honored them through example and through wearing the uniform, a uniform he wore the day I said goodbye to him for the very last time.
We love you, Dad, and thank you for your sacrifice and service to our nation.