I’m an Army brat, born overseas to military parents. The circumstances of my birth are not at all rare, but in 2001 after the World Trade Centers were attacked, my identity as an American suddenly became suspect. The birth papers that had always been sufficient were no longer good enough. My unnecessary naturalization (insisted upon by my mother, and a source of great mirth to the judge who administered a tiny me The Oath of Allegiance) was no longer good enough. For a tidy fee, I had to petition Condoleeza Rice’s State Department to recertify my American-ness (if I wanted to drive, or to fly, or to bank, or to vote, or… you know. Stuff.)
My personal experiences make me bristle at two political conversations we are having: Voter ID (for obvious reasons)… and absentee fathers.
My father served in Korea before I was born, and Vietnam after, but even when he wasn’t away at war, he was often away at schools, on duty or on maneuvers. Other Army brats will understand exactly what I’m talking about.
When I was very little and my dad was at war in Vietnam, my mom cast a magic spell to save him, and to protect our family from losing him. (As a child brought up in The Walt Disney Culture, that is how I perceived what she was doing.) She practiced The Sorcery of Silence with absolute discipline. No news reports, no TV shows, no radio broadcasts about the war were permitted to touch us. No conversations – casual or serious. An acquaintance could not ask her politely how my dad was doing in Vietnam. Her closest and best friends could not ask her. Other military wives could not ask her. She would shut them down before the question was even fully expressed. My mother patrolled the boundaries of her magic spell with fierce, zealous, unwavering vigilance.
He made it.
My first memory of my father was his return from Vietnam in 1970. I knew his voice from speaking to him long distance around the holidays, but not the face he came home with, or the body. When he landed at the tiny Airport in Killeen, Texas, I didn’t recognize him. I was afraid of him. My mother had shown my sister and me pictures of him, but he didn’t look like the pictures. He was painfully thin, very tan, and his hair was different. To me, he looked just like Elvis Presley in the movies broadcast by the indie TV station out of Fort Worth that my mom finally relented, and let my sister and me watch (but just cartoons, re-runs and movies… no scary news).
So… Here was my dad, finally. Only my dad was Elvis in Love Me Tender. It was disorienting.
My dad was born at the back end of The Silent Generation, in 1941, and picked up the guitar for real in 1959, when he entered the Army. By 1960, he was in Korea. By 1962, he was already Second Chair Guitar in the ship’s orchestra on his return. Understand: I knew none of my father’s biography until I was an adult, and screwed up the courage to ask him. (My mother’s spell had rubbed off on me.)
After Vietnam, my dad became my dad in my actual home, a little trailer in Harker Heights, Texas. Having him with us was brand new to me. I was very little, so my memories are scant. What I do remember most is his guitar. My dad would play Something, and sing it to my mom. He would play Looking Out My Backdoor as a lullaby to my sister and me at bedtime. This was way before I was allowed to have a radio of my own, so I just assumed that my dad wrote both songs… and many of the other songs he would play. (FYI: My mom and dad were in love and in lust with each other. Even as a little child, I picked up on that. Something, coming from my dad, sounded completely genuine.)
So, my dad was home. A few years later, my family moved into a real house, and we seemed more like the families I saw on TV. No sooner had we done that, than he was stationed in Germany. My parents decided that he would go alone, and my sister and I would start school in The States. After two years in Germany, he was back for the Bicentennial.
Having a dad in the service, dipping into and out of your life, makes for some interesting discoveries. Thus it happened that in 1976, I learned something new and amazing about my very own dad.
I was old enough now that my mom allowed me an alarm clock radio of my very own in my bedroom, and it even had a built-in cassette recorder. I listened to KIXS 93.3 FM religiously. They counted down the local top hits every night. They broadcast from local live music dives. They had a late-night DJ right out of Almost Famous. They also made a very big deal out of debuting new songs. When they debuted More Than a Feeling by Boston, I was taping.
Wow… WOW! GREAT SONG!!!
I couldn’t wait to play it for my dad when he got home. (He and I could often be found combing the racks at pawn shops for great music, and his collection of LP’s numbered in the thousands.)
When I heard his car pull into our driveway, I was ready for action. He barely made it through the door and put down his stuff before I pulled him into The Music Room (babbling like a maniac the whole time I’m sure). I popped the cassette I’d recorded in, and pressed play. He loved me, so of course he patiently listened. He reached for his guitar and noodled along distractedly as the song played. I thought to myself, “He doesn’t like it like I like it.”
I was a little crushed. Okay, a lot crushed.
At the end of the song, he plugged his guitar into his amp, looked up at me and said, “Play it again.” I rewound the cassette, and pressed play.
My dad, without missing a lick, played back the entire song flawlessly, his ’63 Sunburst Strat BLAZING AT FULL VOLUME! Every hair on my pre-pubescent body stood straight up. It was a moment. It was THE moment that I found out my dad was a Guitar God.
Holy crap. How did I not know that?
The next year, he was sent away again, this time to Indiana for “school.” That summer, my mom packed me and my sister into the car, and made the long drive to be with him. That was the summer that I learned what it was like to live in a hotel, swim anytime I wanted, eat every meal (and play pinball!) at the same diner, and see a By-God-Hollywood-Summer-Blockbuster on a for-real massive big city movie screen. It was 1977, and the movie was Star Wars.
By this time, I was at that age where straight girls start thinking about boys. (Not in a sexual way, in a Marcia-Brady-meets-Davy-Jones kind of way.) I knew my parents were nuts about each other, and I was curious about that. So, when we got back to Texas from Indiana, I started snooping. In my parents’ closet, I found a beautiful, diaphanous, orange negligee set. In their nightstand, I found The Joy of Sex. In their dresser I found girly magazines…
… And under the girly magazines, hinged boxes, like the ones you get when you buy real jewelry. One was normal-sized. The others were much bigger. The small one contained a pair of cufflinks, but not like any I’d ever seen. They looked military, and they looked old to me. Inside the larger boxes were medals. I didn’t know exactly what they meant, but I knew they were about war. My mom’s spell grabbed me by the throat. I put the boxes back. I put the girly magazines back on top of them. I got the hell out of there.
What I want to tell you about my dad:
He was gone a lot. There were years when he probably saw a lot less of us than a divorced dad living in the same city would. When politicians talk about “two-parent families” and “absentee fathers,” I hate it. When I was growing up, the most important thing to me was knowing that my parents were happy, that they were in love with each other, and that they loved me. Sure, I wished my dad was around more, but I had a good childhood.
My dad was a soldier, but he never brought his work – or his weapon – home.
My dad had one Army buddy that was invited to our home for football and food, and only one, Cosby. My parents were so perfect on the issue of race that I didn’t know there was such a thing until I started school.
How this all started:
This afternoon, someone tweeted me More Than A Feeling. “I closed my eyes and I slipped away,” right back to 1976.
Tonight, I called my dad. I asked him if I could ask him a question. He said, “yes.” I told him he could tell me no. He said, “okay.” I told him he could not answer me if he didn’t want to. He said, “okay.” I told him it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if he didn’t want to talk about it.
He told me to ask him.
I told him what I’ve told you about the girly magazines and the boxes.
The cufflinks were awarded to my father in the early 60’s when his band, The Stardusters, won the talent contest in Korea.
The medals were The Good Conduct Medal, The Campaign Medal, The Cross of Galantry, and The Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. All of these medals were awarded to my father for his service to his country in Vietnam.