As with everything else on this blog, there has been no revision here. This doesn't even really qualify as a draft--more like a freewrite or a purge. This is only the second time I've tried to write an account of this day, and the first time was twelve years ago. Maybe someday I'll be able to spend some time working with the material to make more of it than this, but I felt it important to exorcise these thoughts today.
Twenty years ago today everything about me changed, but the day started the same as had the six previous: Some loud scary man slammed the door open and shouted while he banged on every surface available to him. We woke in different attitudes. Some slumped from the bunk to wobble on the line, weaving and bobbing while the Company Commanders shouted their displeasure at us. Others sprang from the mattress and quivered at attention, waiting for the words of praise that might fall their way.
I was somewhere in between. In fact, I was usually standing on the line before I was awake. I mean that literally. There were several mornings when I woke up in a standing position with somebody yelling at me. I hovered in place, though, neither willing myself to follow orders nor rebelling against them—just going through the motions as I felt out the situation.
I tell you that’s how the day started because that’s how all the days started. At least for a while. I have no specific memory of that part of that day, even though it’s probably the second most important day of my life. I know that I woke without issues, joined the company in PT (physical training) for a couple of hours before breakfast, I ate like a horse (always have, always will), and then I went to class with my company. I don’t remember what we learned that day—it could have been history or firefighting or shipboard security or a hundred other things. But class ended mid-morning and we returned to the barracks to receive our next set of instructions. We marched as a company, four wide and twenty deep, the guidon (the shortest man in the company, assigned to carry the company flag) in the front right. Since I was among the tallest half-dozen in the company I was on that right side as well, about a foot away from the edge of the cement. I had the rest of the company between me and anyone we might pass, or anything that could approach on the sidewalk.
When we climbed the stairs and entered our compartment we lined up in front of our bunks again, stood at attention and waited. It was early enough in the day that we all had the energy to face whatever came next. Our round, stubbly heads faced directly ahead, so we each had a handful of our peers in view directly across. I faced Fincher, a broad-shouldered man from Jamaica who always smiled slightly. He was smiling then. Our dungarees still crackled with newness and our boondockers shone from a week of nightly polishing.
We didn’t flinch anymore when the CCs came in and shouted. I don’t remember the orders they gave us, but we turned toward the door to head out again. I didn’t get to go, though, because one of the Company Commanders took me out of line. He didn’t shout my name or send a messenger to get me. He approached me himself, spoke in a normal voice, and asked me to follow him to the office. Something had to be very wrong, and I knew what it was.
In the office, both CCs stood casually and explained to me that I needed to see the base chaplain. They handed me a walking chit and told me to go directly to the chaplain’s office. Did I remember where that was? I did. I left the compartment as a handful of others, left behind for housekeeping duties, got to work sweeping and swabbing.
Outside I functioned like a company unto myself. I marched in straight lines and right corners, I kept to the right edge of the sidewalk, and I kept my eyes forward. In my left hand I clutched my walking chit, leaving my right hand free to salute should I pass an officer or Company Commander. I didn’t pass anyone on that trip. The sun glowed hazily in the pale blue sky, less a fiery ball than an off-white smear.
Ten minutes after I left the barracks I arrived at the chaplain’s office and was quickly let in by the receptionist. I don’t remember the exact conversation that took place. I may not have even heard what the chaplain said, and I wouldn’t have had to hear him to know why I was there. I’d known it from the moment I was pulled out of line. I’d known it was coming since the beginning of summer, and I’d feared it for a year. The chaplain, a white-haired, florid-faced man with a Lieutenant Commander’s gold oak leaf on one lapel of his khaki shirt and a dull gold cross on the other, told me the news and hugged me and told me to come to him if I needed help. Again, I don’t remember what words he used. He could have said, “Your father died this morning.” He might have said, “Your father has passed on,” or “Your father has gone home to Jesus.” Probably he said something like, “Your mother called this morning. I’m afraid your father has passed away. I’m sorry.”
I’ve always been a crier. The first time I watched Snoopy, Come Home, when I was about six years old, I had to leave the room while Charlie Brown and his friends looked for Snoopy and the sad music played. I stood in the darkened living room and tried to stop the tears running down my face. When I was ten and my dad told me I couldn’t play basketball because I hadn’t been doing my math homework I stared at the floor while he chastised me. With my face tilted forward my tears fell directly from my eyes to the rug. When I say goodbye to people I tear up. I cried at my wedding and for most of my last day at work before we moved to Oklahoma. In short, I’m an emotional wuss. While the chaplain offered his condolences and his assistance I cried, wiped my eyes, blew my nose, and tried to compose myself.
Over the next couple of hours I was shuttled around the base by a series of personnel. I was taken to the tailor where they measured me for dress whites. I was taken to the travel office where they arranged for a very expensive last-minute flight leaving that afternoon. I was taken to personnel where they arranged for me to take nine days of leave—more time off than I’d served to that point. We returned to the tailor so I could pick up my hastily-hemmed dress uniform. I was taken back to the barracks where I packed a small bag and changed into my whites. Two other guys were in the barracks then, and when they found out why I was leaving they offered platitudes. One said, “God bless you.” He asked if he could pray for me. I said, “Do what you gotta do,” pressed my cover onto my head, and left with my handler.
A year and three days earlier my father had been diagnosed with cancer. After months of seeing doctors about numbness in his hand and arm they’d finally done a CAT scan and found a tumor in his brain. They quickly scheduled surgery, and one day he came home with a square patch shaved from his hair just above the hairline on the right side of his forehead. In the middle of the bare patch lay a cluster of glistening stitches. For months he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I drove him to some of those appointments, but we never talked much about it. I was afraid to and he may have been, too.
The chemo sickened him and made it difficult for him to eat. At dinner he’d try to force food down, but gagged and retched with almost every bite. I ate with my head down, unwilling to leave the table but unable to face anyone. I chewed with a loose mouth and wiped my mouth and my eyes with my napkin. In May the doctors determined the cancer was too advanced. Terminal. Tumors in his liver and everything else. The situation went from a possible recovery to a countdown.
The night before I left for boot camp my brother and I drove around with Hammer, visited as many friends as we could. We got to Sly’s house at three in the morning—he’d been in California and just got back to town late that night. When we walked into the house our parents were awake, waiting for us. Actually, they waited on the floor in front of Dad’s recliner. The night before he’d tried to stand but fell, dropped to the floor at the foot of his chair. Mom tried to help him back into the chair, but they couldn’t do it. They waited for six hours before we got home to help. Between my shame over that personal failure—why hadn’t I spent that evening with my family?—and anxiety over leaving that day I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay in bed for an hour, then rose, showered, and left with my recruiter.
On August 24, 1988 I flew home again, a skinny kid with a shaved head, dressed in what was more a costume than a uniform at that point. I leaned against the window during the flight and tried to think of anything except the only thing I could think about. I failed. I cried.
The wake and the funeral passed quickly. At the interment, when the honor guard performed the twenty-one gun salute, I took my cover off and put it against my chest, acting like a civilian even though I was in uniform. I managed pretty well that day, but I couldn’t keep my composure when I saw my grandparents standing beside the casket, my grandmother weeping and my grandfather looking like he’d been kicked in the stomach.
I was home for nine days before shipping back to basic training, where I spent the weekend in a holding company before joining a new group one week behind my original company. Boot camp turned out to be both good and bad for my psyche. It was good in that I didn’t have a chance to dwell on my problems. It was bad in that I didn’t have a chance to dwell on my problems. If I had, maybe I would have healed better. Or at all. At times it feels like my whole adult life has been one long, inadequate reaction to that moment when I was pulled out of line.
One of the other images of my father from that last year was devastating at the time, but has mellowed a little with age. After he started radiation and chemo his hair started falling out, of course. He'd always had nice hair--thick and wavy and dark--but the constant drifting of single strands onto his neck, his forehead, his ears drove him crazy. One afternoon he'd had enough. He stood up from his recliner, walked out the back patio door and onto the deck. He stood at the northeast corner of the deck and got rid of that annoying hair. He grabbed little bits at first and tossed them into the wind. Soon he was clutching gobs of it and pulling it away from his head. It came away like dandelion fluff and floated away from us the same way. My mom couldn't take it. She couldn't watch, and she kept telling him to stop it. I was in shock, and I think my brother was, too. But Dad finished his work, stripped his head until there were just wisps trailing and downy patches hugging his scalp. He looked more at peace then than he had in a while. Cancer makes a patient helpless. In pop culture we like to attach the words "battle" and "struggle" to the disease, but there isn't any combat for the patient to wage. There's only endurance and little gestures of stubbornness. Sometimes those gestures, even when small, gain power enough to make the endurance a bit easier. Like Dad pulling his hair out. Like me writing this.