By C. Hope Clark
Growing up on military bases in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we brats shared the bond of our fathers devoted to careers protecting democracy and world peace. We shared the roars of B-52s on a strategic Air Command Air Force Base flight line, and the realization that at any moment, an “alert” would scramble our fathers to their positions in response to a world emergency. We knew our Pledge of Allegiance from the time we could talk and we said it with fervor.
Military families were close. We held our collective breath when orders came through for Southeast Asia assignments. A year seemed forever for a child to live in limbo while dad did his tour and mom held the family together. We knew many mothers struggling with the load of temporary single parent. Our family enjoyed the luxury of our father’s presence for longer than most, and feeling lucky in this regard, I became complacent in the knowledge that my father had not received such menacing orders…until 1969. I froze when Daddy announced his orders for Danang, South Vietnam.
Daddy did not serve on the front line as an NCO in fuels maintenance, but his job did not remove him from harm’s way. The Viet Cong shelled bases frequently and fuel was volatile. Vietnam’s name meant danger in any capacity at any locale. The country’s soil was contaminated with fear and instability.
The eldest of two sisters, I possessed a particular closeness to my dad that I did not realize, or share, until after he left. Daddy stood tall and strong, in my eyes, as the Superman that stopped all bullets. The ache in my heart matched nothing experienced in my short teenage life, and I groped for balance and sought comfort the entire time, never finding peace.
That year was very long and particularly difficult. Mom tried but never quite filled the void left by my Daddy. She held my hand as he stepped onto the plane to leave – her tears dropping on my fingers but no sobs. I remember her strength.
Like shells against our soldiers, the television bombarded us each evening on the six o’clock news. Few households exempted the torment of knowing someone injured, traumatized or lost. Lists of casualties scrolled slowly down the television screen, and even though we knew we’d be contacted before seeing a loss broadcast to the country, we still held our breath until the alphabetical listing passed our family’s initial. Those were haunting newscasts unlike the theatrical, orchestrated displays of modern day.
With Daddy writing Mom daily, and my sister and I weekly, we slowly endured the chasm of time and place. Gifts of jade, teak and bronze arrived frequently along with photos of green uniformed GI’s posing in barracks, planes and jeeps. In turn, we packaged sweets and treats for Daddy, his buddies, and Vietnamese orphans located near the base. One photo showed Daddy with a group of cohorts; one of which sported a head bandage. For one horrific moment we envisioned rifle fire, bombs, shrapnel and grenades, until we read the caption stating he had fallen out of his bunk.
The year drew to a close. Shopping for hours in pursuit of the perfect fashions, we wanted Daddy to cast his eyes on three exquisitely stunning ladies. Mom spent an unbelievable $100 on a pantsuit, a healthy price tag in 1970.
A phone call. A plane carrying troops returning from Danang crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff, but identities of the injured and dead remained unconfirmed. Authorities said someone would be in touch as soon as possible. We waited in shock wanting the phone to ring yet dreading it, too.
I could not imagine life without my Daddy. I could not understand how a God could protect him from bullets and kill him coming home.
For a year he existed on another continent, but at least he lived on my world. The thought of his complete absence from my life was intolerable, and I cried like I had not allowed myself to do for a year.
The phone call chilled my blood but only for a moment. The plane that crashed had preceded Daddy’s flight, and he flew en route to his girls at that very moment. The agony was over, replaced by a rushing thrill made all the more extraordinary by the scare.
Daddy retired at the young age of 40 with 22 years service, over half his life. I recall the pomp and circumstance of his retirement on a breezy, warm December midday in 1974 on Charleston Air Force Base. In dress blues under a coordinated bright blue cloudless sky, he received his commendation for military service.
A handsome man, tall and lean with nary a gray hair at the time, I beamed watching him march, stop, and crisply salute. Proud not only of him, but of the loyalty, dedication, and service he represented, I thought deeply, as I am sure he did, about this closing chapter in all our lives. Recalling the people and places, the opportunities and the experiences, the pride and responsibility, I haughtily deduced that now and evermore…I was an Air Force brat.
Veterans Day means much more than putting on a uniform. It’s thanks to the families that support those uniforms as well. I understand all their sacrifice, and wish all the best for the current military and their blessed families.
C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, from beautiful Lake Murray, South Carolina. Lowcountry Bribe released February 12, with Tidewater Murder coming out in early 2013. www.chopeclark.com