Monday, May 28, 2012

Post Memorial Day Story

I'm glad Memorial Day weekend is over. Much as I love 3-day weekends, I've got some heavy baggage that goes with this particular holiday weekend. This one though was hot and busy and not ruined by lies and betrayal. What a relief.

In fact, in a few words this weekend was rock 'n roll jamming, long bike rides along the river, a crowded historical festival, thick, juicy steak and portabellos on the grill, red wine, blood orange and lemon sorbets, Game of Thrones .... and to honor those who gave service, a viewing of one of the worst patriotic, "blowing shit up" movies I've ever seen, Battleship. Most of that with a good friend who knew I needed to replace some memories this weekend. (Thanks, Diplomat.)

As the weekend winds down, I've been thinking about what Memorial Day originally meant. Google it if you don't know. I'm off duty tonight. I was an Air Force officer's wife for 20 years, so I've known a few people who have served this country -- just a few. And I've known a few -- just a few -- who have given their lives.

LtColEx's first assignment out of navigator school was to Robins AFB, Georgia. He was stationed in a wing made of up of two squadrons: B-52 bombers loaded with nukes and the KC-135's that refueled them in the air.

KC-135 refueling a B-52

We lived on base along with a lot of other young couples and families from the wing. It's a unique culture, the military, and I'm not going to try to explain it here. It's enough to say the men were gone a lot and the wives learned to cope if they were going to be military wives for long. Our husbands sat alert one week out of every three, which meant they lived on the other side of the base in the alert facility right beside 4 bombers and 4 135's. Eight crews had to be ready to get those planes in the air within minutes when an alert went off. We never knew when the alert might be the real thing. They were also gone for weeks or months at a time TDY (temporary duty) to other bases in other states and countries, sometimes with only a day's notice.

Somehow we learned to live with the knowledge that our husbands could leave on a mission at any time .... and that they might not come back. Ever.

I was 25 when that reality came crashing home. One of the pilots in the bomber squadron was leaving the plane, going to fly a desk at the Pentagon. We bought his lawn mower from him because his family would be living in a townhouse. He brought the mower to us, and told us he had one more flight later in the week. Our neighbor two houses down, Matt, was the navigator on that flight. There were 5 other crew members on the plane that night too.

They were flying a low-level exercise in snowy Utah, which means they were flying under the radar using instruments. It was a routine flight. These guys flew low-level missions all the time. Because it was the pilot's last flight, the wives drove out on the flight line in one car and were waiting with champagne ..... only the plane didn't show up ...  and it didn't show up.

Finally somebody -- the squadron commander probably -- came out on the flight line and told them the tower had lost contact with the plane.  They weren't sure yet what happened, but the news probably wasn't good. He told the wives to go home and wait. We all waited.

I guess even a plane that big doesn't leave much debris when it flies into a mountain going 500-600 mph. It took two days to find the wreckage, what was left of it. The plane -- everything and everyone on it -- disintegrated when it hit. There wasn't much left.

I can't really describe the shock, the disbelief, we all felt. We were so young. The pilot was 28, and Matt was 24. But the parade of dark blue cars with the chaplains and colonels and generals inside turning into, parking in Roseanne's driveway, kept it all real.

For me, it was one more tragedy in an awful period of time. My dad had suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack at age 46 just a few weeks before in Iowa. I was alone hundreds of miles from home dealing with the grief from that. Life already felt fragile, and now one more thing that could never happen had just happened.

I couldn't go to the memorial service. I was still too raw. I visited Roseanne, my neighbor, and took with me a big can of coffee, which I knew she'd need. I just didn't think I'd make it through the memorial. I don't regret that decision.

The day after the service Roseanne called me and asked if I'd go for a walk with her. She said I was the only one who had gone through a close death, who might understand. I can't believe how young we were.

We walked for a long time, all over the base. She talked about Matt, about finishing school (we were both in college), what she might do next. She wasn't sure. The Air Force was going to let her live in base housing until the end of the semester though, so she'd decide then.

And then she asked me, "How long does it last? This awful grief, how long does it last? I mean, when will it get better?"

I said, "I don't know yet. Never maybe. It's still bad. It's still almost more than I can take sometimes."

She said, "I was afraid of that. I don't know if I can get through this."

I said, "You've already gotten through a few days. You'll get through more. We don't have a choice."

What the fuck did I know? Nothing really. But she did get through it. She got her degree and she remarried a few years later. Eventually I lost track of her. Military people are so transient; she had moved on.

I doubt Matt's parents ever really got over his death though. He was an only child, and they were so proud of him. They had a big stone memorial air-lifted by helicopter and installed on the mountain at the site of the crash. There had been nothing left to bury.

Afterwards, for years, every time a dark blue car drove down the street, I froze and held my breath and prayed, "Please don't let it pull into my driveway. Please don't let them come here." I felt so guilty, hoping it would pull into any driveway but mine. Of course, I didn't want it to pull into another wife's driveway ..... I just didn't want it in mine. And obviously, it never did.

So this Memorial Day, at the very end of the day, I'm telling this story because I remember. I remember those 7 flyers who didn't come home. And I remember all the others who came and went through my life who did come home. And I remember the service LtColEx gave to his country and how proud I've always been of him for that. And how glad I was every time he came home safe.

There's a saying in the military that goes something like this: If the military had meant for an airman to have a family, they would have issued him one. Bullshit. They serve with honor and pride, and their families serve right there beside them .... and carry on when they don't fucking come home. I was grateful for every day that dark blue car didn't pull into my driveway, but I still had to worry that it would.

To all those who serve and have served, I offer all I have: my gratitude. 
Thank you.

Arlington Cemetery


  1. After all these years, my heart beats a little faster when I think about seeing the chaplain's car coming down our street. Thankfully, it never came to our house. I also still feel a little guilty that I was thankful that it was someone else's dad and not mine. I don't think these feelings ever go away.

    I'm trying to check my spelling, grammar, etc., but it's difficult as I'm looking through tears in my eyes.

    1. I would still tense up if I saw that blue sedan too. And it's been years since I worried about LtColEx's plane falling from the sky or a terrorist kidnapping him or any of the other things that could have happened when he was out there living his other life.

      Sorry about the tears. I shed some too as I was writing it.

  2. It's a world most people don't really know. I guess firemen and policemen wives have similar fears. Maybe. But there's something weird about knowing the process so well - the process of being informed of death. The blue cars, the chaplain at the doorstep, etc. It does kind of warp you a little.

    1. I agree, Sue. Wives of other heroes share the same fears.

      But there's something about the military -- the shared culture, living space, language, sudden PCSing. Someone tried to tell me corporate life is like that now, but no. Nothing else is really like it. You have to live it to know and understand it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this poignant and important glimpse of the military life...

    1. You're welcome, Ria. Thanks for reading. :-)