It was the spring of 1990 and I was about to be a rising freshman. Like a lot of boys in my school I was playing sports, soccer, and was one of the best goalies in my Rec league and was trying out for the jv team that fall. My dad had been my coach through jr. high school. I was part of the school band playing percussion and I was looking forward to going to the high school to play in the marching band. I played around the neighborhood with my friends, new friends really, since it had only been two years since I moved there from Japan. But two years feels like a lifetime at that age.
Unlike the other kids though, I was a military kid, and my dad had his residency in South Carolina I could get my drivers license that spring, so I was learning how to drive a full two years before all of my friends, something my dad was helping with. We would go to the coast guard base and drive around on the roads since they weren’t so busy. He lost his cool when I ran a stop sign though, he said something about losing his base privileges to drive on base. It didn’t make sense to me since I was learning how to drive, I mean wouldn’t they understand? I took every stop sign after that seriously though.
The dependents’ cruise
It was that summer, I can’t remember when exactly, that the ship my dad was chaplain invited all of the families of the sailors who worked on the ship to go on a dependents’ cruise. Since I had lived in Okinawa, I hadn’t really seen that side of my dad’s life. We saw it all the time over there, I mean, we were a part of it. The chapel in Okinawa was a refuge for the families of the marines stationed there, and we were a part of that refuge as a family, My dad my mom, my brother and me.
Since we had gotten back to the states, maybe because we were a little older, or maybe just because we were in the states my dad’s life in the military was more foreign to us. He had been stationed at a coast guard base before he pulled the duty on the ship, and that base was right down the road from our house and it had a rec pool and racquetball courts where my dad would take us to play. But even there we didn’t see what it was that he was doing for a living. At least not like in Japan.
On the day of the cruise, I remember it was extremely sunny with big puffy clouds. We had to get to the shipyard relatively early since the ship was going to be getting underway soon. I remember walking up the gangway, it was really steep and the feeling of the squishiness of the boat going up and down next to the pier.
There was a lot of stuff for the sailors to do on the boat while getting underway so my dad took us to the officer’s mess to hang out. There was a constant low rumble of the diesel engines that made it hard to hear. The room was stale and cold with the ac, with a low ceiling. Long tables in the center of the room and thick pleather chairs off to the side that were bolted to the floor and cheap industrial carpet throughout. The room smelled like cigarettes and lunch all mixed up. My brother and I played cards, go fish I think, while we waited. There was the occasionally a whistle, like a wolf whistle over the intercom called the 1mc, followed by some commands that we weren’t meant to understand.
Once the ship was about to get underway, which meant that most of the crew were going to be at their duty stations we went out to watch the tug boats pull the ship away from the dock. I had never seen anything like it. It was pretty fun to watch.
My dad then took us to see his state room, which was surprising. Not much bigger than a closet with fluorescent lights, and two people slept in it. Two bunks, a small closet, and a sink that was it, there wasn’t much to see here so we didn’t stay long.
Then we went down to see his office, it was deep in the bottom of the ship. Four or five maybe six flights down crazy steep stairs and a labyrinth of hallways. His office was two rooms, one for reception staff and his office. The receptionist was working at her desk when we came in. His office was bigger than his state room. We didn’t stay her long either. I don’t know if we did all of this as a whirlwind because we were young and easily bored or if there just wasn’t anything to see. We were out in the Chesapeake Bay now and we went to main deck to hang out outside. I remember the families walking along the deck, and talking and kids laughing.
Once we got to the bay bridge tunnel, the ship slowed and began to turn around then we headed back in to the shipyard. I don’t remember much after this, but I remember watching teams of coast guard members in a zodiac following alongside the ship as we came back into the shipyard port. I don’t even remember leaving the ship or the ride home that day.
I don’t think we knew that there was a deployment coming up. I think we just thought that it was a cool family day on the ship.
Pre – Deployment
Later that summer I knew by now that there was a deployment coming up, after all we usually knew when there was scheduled deployment. But there was all of this stuff on the news about Kuwait and Sadaam Hussein. I remember hearing George HW Bush and the funny way he would say Sah dAmn on the news. I had been practicing with the high school drumline during the summer, and I met Greg through that. Greg was a year ahead of me in the drumline. One night he dropped by and picked me up to ride around like teenagers do, only I had never done it before. As a matter of fact, I was laying in front of the TV when he came by. My dad hated coming home and seeing me laying in front of the TV, “When I was younger than you I had a two jobs.” His dad, a police chief, would make him paint curbs and fire hydrants from when he was old enough to be outside on his own, “What’s wrong with you”. So it was a welcome thing for Greg to come by and take me out of the house. I am still not convinced that my mom didn’t put Greg up to it, but we did have fun.
I don’t remember exactly where my dad was taking me the day that I got the talk that so many of us sons of military fathers give, maybe it was a new friend from the high school band’s birthday party. It was just the two of us, and we were driving down sterling pointe dr., a road that we had never ridden on. It was a really nice neighborhood, way nicer than ours, that was near the river. The neighborhood road had tall oak trees that made a canopy and made the sun dapple all over the road. We drove into the back of the neighborhood to a cul-de-sac and turned around and he pulled over. I remember looking up at how tall the oak trees were, and the sound of NPR talking on the radio. My dad turned down the volume, and I remember him saying something to the effect of,
“You know I going to be leaving for a while, right?”
“I need you to be good for your mama. I need you to be the man of the house while I am gone, mmkay.”
It was surreal, I don’t even remember the party or whatever we came to that neighborhood for. I knew that he was leaving for a deployment. He had done that before. When I was two years old and my brother was barely born, he was sent to Iwakuni for a year. He had spent 6 months along the DMZ, and the entire time he was in seminary was like a deployment since we lived so far away from the school. I don’t know if it was because I was older, but the entire thing felt different this time, with all of the stuff going on on the news with the president making ultimatums. It seemed like this time he did didn’t know how long he was going to be gone, or if he would be coming back. He was trying to be reassuring, I think, but it didn’t feel that way.
The day he left was overcast and chilly, there were lots of women and kids lined up at the fence outside the pier where the ship was docked. There was lots of crying, and people screaming, “Bye” and “Be safe” and “I love you”. The ship’s engines and the tugs pulling on it, the sound of the ships horn as it was leaving the pier. The whole scene was chaotic. The ship pulled away from the pier the same way we had seen it do on the dependent’s cruise, only this time the entire crew was lined up along the edge of the ship dressed in their dress whites. Haunting.
My mom tried to make sure all of our time was filled, soccer games, and band practices. I started dating someone for the first time. That winter I quit playing soccer, because the coach wouldn’t play me in the goal. So I took up wrestling, since it was something my dad said he had always wanted to do, but it conflicted with football and baseball. I was never one for football. In a way I think I was trying to honor his memory, if you can honor the memory of someone that is still alive.
Back then, it was different than today. Now you can skype with your loved one’s and catch up, then you had to write a letter and wait six weeks, or wait until they got into a friendly port so that they could call. And even then you might not be home for the call.
I feel like I lived an entire life during that 9 months that he was gone. My girlfriend broke up with me, I became a starter on the wrestling team, I was a snare drummer in the marching band, and I became a performer at festivals for a local theater group. I remember watching Wolf Blitzer with my mom when scuds were raining down on Kuwait City. Seeing the tomahawk missile launches off of the decks of ships like my dad’s. I know my mom was scared. For me though, during all of that time the world had no color, it was all grey. Its not like he was around all of the time when he was home. But at least we knew that he was coming home.
I don’t remember when I heard the news that the war was over, but it was just after my birthday that he came home. I remember all of the yellow ribbons tide around trees in the front yard and the mailbox. I remember going with my mom and my Grandmother, to the shipyard to watch the ship pull into the dock. We were all lined up at the fence again, it was cold and overcast. All of the women and children were there again, only instead of crying, it was squeals of joy and laughter, and ladies calling their sailor’s names. The sound of the ship’s engines and the tugs along side it. Again, the entire crew was lined up along the edge of the ship in their dress whites. Somehow, still haunting. The process sailors to leave the ship took a long time. I remember being bored with the waiting. When he came off of the gangway, we met him and we all rode home together. My brother was extremely excitable and probably blew my dad’s mind with question after question. The house was decorated with yellow ribbons, red white and blue balloons, and a chincy banner that said welcome home.
That was the last time my dad was deployed. It was almost like none of it had happened. Life moved back into normalcy, my dad taught me how to drive a stick shift, since I had already learned how to drive an automatic. He came to a wrestling meet the next year since he had missed the previous season, that was fun. I remember hearing him screaming my name from the stands, trying to help me win the match. At that point It all felt like it had never happened.