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Sunday School Squadron

05-25-15 F-8 Collage-1

My dad taught my Sunday School class for a brief time when I was fifteen. I wouldn’t have gone if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have gone if my mother didn’t make him. He wasn’t the Bible study type; he was in alcohol recovery for the second time, at the age of forty-five. Redemption was on the line.

The high school class never had many attendees. On the first day, when only two other students showed up, my dad took out his wallet and counted his cash. Then he pulled out his car keys and said, “How about a field trip?”

He drove us to McDonald’s. After we got pancakes and sandwiches, he sat down at the booth with a small black coffee and an aluminum ashtray. He lit a cigarette and admitted he didn’t know how to teach Sunday school. But, he knew the Bible was mostly stories to help you live your life. Since he couldn’t think of any Bible stories, he said he’d tell us a story from his life, from his days in the Navy.

My dad never talked much about life in the military. He was a Navy fighter pilot stationed in Hawaii during the Vietnam War. That sentence pretty much summed up all he ever told me. His photos shared more words.

Composite of Official Photograph U.S. Navy and My Father's Message on the Back
Composite of Official Photograph U.S. Navy and My Father’s Message on the Back

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My dad would say “Fighter Pilot” like that was all I needed to know, like that title was beginning, middle, end. Before our McDonald’s breakfast, the closest he got to sharing Navy stories was when he tried to explain the flight simulator program on our new home computer.

I ate my Egg McMuffin, elbow to elbow with my fellow fast-food acolytes, while my Dad smoked and looked in the direction of the Mayor McCheese playground with a faraway gaze. He knew how to use the dramatic pause. I wondered which amazing adventure he was going to share.

Almost everything I knew about my dad I heard from my mom. My mother talked about his service more than he did. When he wasn’t around – which was most of the time – she told me how much he loved flying, to explain his manic depression.”Once you go supersonic, how is anything else in life going to match that?”

She told me how everyone in his squadron had alcohol problems, not just my dad. “Was it the men who became pilots or what being a pilot did to the men?” The planes he flew were notoriously difficult, earning the name “ensign killer”. My mom told me a friend of my dad’s was killed during take-off from a carrier’s flight deck – the jet just flew straight into the ocean.

My mother also told me my dad never seemed to recover from the trauma of his Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (S.E.R.E.) training. It was POW training, required of all pilots. She said he came back different, that the experiences left him shaken for years. The training is what he told us about in McDonald’s.

That Sunday, he was a long way from his high flying F-8 glory days. After three years sober, he fell off the wagon a couple weeks before my sister’s wedding. He lost his job at the car dealership. He had nothing better to do than accept my mother’s Sunday School enlistment.

The thrill and honor of his piloting was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he remembered the pain, the fear, all the things I never heard about from him. He said he had a hard time thinking of a story he could share with kids our age, but he thought he’d tell us what changed him most during his service.

In one part of the training, my dad learned to find food in the wilderness. He told us how an officer held up a dove. My dad said it was the most beautiful bird, coo’ing softly as the officer pet its head. The officer talked about the importance of getting the most nutrition from every meal, that they should cook the whole bird body, no plucking or dressing. Then he ripped the bird’s head off and tossed the whole thing into a pot. My dad said that probably upset him more than anything that was to come.

Once they had their survival skills, his group was released in the woods and told to evade capture while crossing to a check point. He saw some soldiers just hide out, opting to wait till the training was over to emerge. Even though he tried to run, my dad said he got caught. His captors took him to a building where he was given a cigarette and a water. Then he was interrogated and a couple burly guys beat the mess out of him.

Once he was released into a cell, he found the other guys who hid out during the exercise. Evidently, they were picked up when the all-clear was given. Officers took them to a building where they were given cigarettes and water, then they were interrogated and got the mess beaten out of them.

He finally looked back at us Sunday Schoolers, across the pile of empty wrappers on the table. He said, “See? Either way, same ending. You can try to hide out, try to play it safe, but you don’t learn anything along the way. I mean, if you’re just gonna get a cigarette and a beating when it’s all over, why not try to get the most out of it you can before you get caught?”

Being only fifteen, I was still struggling to get past the dove decapitation, and the terror of imagining his training, and the brand-new awareness that my dad had an interior landscape totally foreign to me. I couldn’t begin to understand what his POW story meant to me, or even to him. I excused myself to get a refill of sweet tea.

My dad “taught” a couple more classes. Two more McDonald’s trips, but no stories. Just coffee and cigarettes and greasy biscuits. Then he told my mom he couldn’t do it anymore.

Soon after, he opened a consignment store. Then, he took up acting for the first time. My mom said it had always been a dream, but lifelong stage fright held him back. He decided he could finally face that fear.

I wish I could say that was the start of a whole new life, and a happy ending. It wasn’t. There were DUIs and mental commitments and the wild swinging of bipolar disorder still on his flight path. But, for a few more years, my dad got back into the pilot seat and took life for another spin.

Looking back, I could define my dad’s life by his failures, but I would only be cheating myself. I’m almost the same age my dad was in that McDonald’s, and I have debacles of my own.

I didn’t join the military, haven’t seen combat, I’ve avoided ever getting pummeled, and I can’t begin to understand the ways that his service during the Vietnam War affected his life. Despite his Sunday School lesson, I tried to play it safe, to hide out, to avoid getting caught. And I ended up having the proverbial mess beaten out of me all the same.

When I was fifteen, my dad’s advice to “get the most out of it you can before you get caught” seemed kind of obvious. (It’s easy to be smart before you actually learn anything.) I now see my dad’s advice is about having the courage to get back out there and play the game again. Even though you know exactly how much it’s gonna hurt at the end, and how little that affects the final outcome, you might squeeze a bit more learning out of life.

As resonant as his ‘get back out there’ message is, though, what means the most to me now is that when he was at his rock bottom it wasn’t old glories that got him through. It was the tough times. Remembering his POW lessons, that’s what gave him hope when his high flying days were over – not the promotional photographs.

That gives me hope because while I don’t have any dazzling achievements, I have plenty of painful lessons. Rather than letting those failures bury me, I might be able to use them – even if it’s just to pass on a little wisdom to kids who are still too young to use it.

Official Photo U.S. Navy
Official Photo U.S. Navy

Saving The Family Tree

11-02-08 Family Tree Skull

Moments after I gave birth to my daughter, my second child, I felt as though a heavy blanket of grief lifted from me. My daughter was born in June 2008, exactly a week before the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death.

The closeness of those two dates held even greater meaning for me because my son had been born in February 2005, just four days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. It seemed like the start of my kids’ lives filled the voids left by my parents.

Holding my newborn daughter in my arms, the sudden sense of completeness gave me confidence that my family wasn’t lost forever. That thought was a relief because the intervening five years felt like living in a black hole.

A few months later, on the Day of the Dead, I made a tribute to my parents at a community event at the Tacoma Art Museum. It was the first time I made a formal effort to honor their passing. Before that, I don’t think I’d been able to accept they were gone.

In the community art space I painted my parents’ initials on a sugar skull and wrapped it in scarlet tissue paper. When I was done, it was mine to take – but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t really a mantlepiece object and I didn’t have a grave to place it on. So I stuffed it in my purse and took it home.

As I pulled up to my house, I saw the red Japanese Maple in my side yard. It had been a tiny sapling when we first moved in, but grew into a beautiful tree over the years. Its leaves were just starting to fall, and I noticed they matched the color of the tissue paper.

When I took the photo above, I half-jokingly named the maple “The Family Tree”.

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Since that day, I watch the tree every morning while I drink my coffee. I thought of the roots I put down here in the Northwest, far from my North Carolina home, as it grew tall enough to reach the attic windows of my house. The tree even inspired me to draw, despite the fact that I’m not so good.

 

7-25-11 Japanese Maple

The previous homeowner planted the tree just before selling to us. It sits closer to the house than it should. On top of that, the trunk divided very close to the ground. It looked like two trees joined together.

According to my tree book, those two factors put the tree at a serious disadvantage.  For years I wondered if it could continue to support both main branches. I fretted over its viability in such tight quarters. Every Spring I would stand in front of the Family Tree and try to carefully, modestly, prudently prune the branches to keep it happy.

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Last summer we installed new siding on our home and the tree’s placement made the job harder. The siders wanted to remove it to get easier access to the job. I said no.

For three days I listened to the two men yelling at each other in their native language as they wedged scaffolding in the narrow space between the house and tree, bumping into branches and badly scraping the trunk. I couldn’t understand their words, but I guessed there were plenty of curses being tossed in the tree’s direction.

Before Fall hit last year, most of the Family Tree’s leaves turned dark, curled up, and fell to the ground. While the neighboring green Japanese Maple still fluttered in the breeze, the red maple bared its branches.

05-15-15 Family Tree-2

***

This Spring the Family Tree looks sad. Few branches have leaves, most of them are dry and splitting. My research tells me that there’s not a lot I can do to make it come back to life. It will or it won’t, depending on how strong it is.

05-15-15 Family Tree-4

Last week on Mother’s Day my husband tackled a few jobs for me. First, he took the hand saw to one of the Family Tree’s main trunks. It was dead beyond recovery. Once it was cut off, the remaining tree looked fragile. Only a few living leaves clung to the tips of the branches.

Although I shouldn’t read so  much into landscaping, I sat in the yard looking at the tree and wondered what its death would mean for my own extended family. When I left North Carolina back in 1999 I didn’t think it would be forever. I thought I’d go back in a few years.

I tried to hold on to my connections down South, but the physical distance crept into familial distance. It’s not easy to keep a family together, especially once everyone has kids of their own. At some point, I suppose, we have to focus our energy on growing our own little saplings. Still, as I looked at the drastically diminished Family Tree, I felt the loss of my lineage all over again.

Then, my husband did one more job for me on Mother’s Day. He painted my weary, ragged kitchen cabinets so they could be used as chalkboards. Until we get the money to overhaul the whole room, we figured we could have fun “arting” up the kitchen.

Knowing there’s nothing physical I can do for my Family Tree, I picked up the chalk and created an artistic tribute to it. My daughter saw me drawing and asked what I was doing. I told her the Japanese Maple was in bad shape and I hoped that maybe imagining it coming back to life might help.

That evening I walked into the kitchen to discover a companion drawing on the cabinet. My daughter told me she decided to draw her own picture, “but with the sun, because trees like sunshine, too.” She also told me she put her own message on the drawing, so the tree would know what she meant.

"Please come back to life. You so pretty when you are alive." My daughter's message to the Family Tree (spelling corrected).
“Please come back to life. You are so pretty when you are alive.” My daughter’s message to the Family Tree (spelling corrected).

My daughter has a better grasp of the spiritual than me. All my years of school and science and journalism leave me a little embarrassed about fully committing to prayer – or even positive thinking. Just shy of seven-years-old, though, my daughter has an innocent confidence in the power of intention.

***

This morning I went out to check on my garden and braced myself as I walked up to the Family Tree, afraid I’d see even more branches failing. Instead, I saw something on a part of the tree I thought was long gone. A teensy-tiny leaf pushed its way out of the bark.

05-15-15 Family Tree-3

The rational part of me can’t credit this new growth to the drawings my daughter and I made. But, thinking back to how my daughter’s birth, her emergence into this world, helped a long-dormant part of me come back to life, I can hope it’s a sign that my Family Tree isn’t yet a goner.

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Luckily, I’m not the only one to find inspiration among the trees. Here’s a playlist of songs that fuel my flights of forestry fancy.

Elegy For The Dead Mouse In Our Wall

Art by Megan
Art by Megan

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On this radiant May Day, full of flowers basking and leaves shimmering, I remember the sun was once a god.

Watching his blazing chariot high in the sky, I call Apollo’s attention to a tiny, deceased bod.

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Way back when, the ancients sometimes called him Apollo Smintheus, because he was also Lord of the Mice.

Mice adorned his temples, served as his informants, and delivered his plagues, which wasn’t so nice.

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Today, Apollo’s golden radiance can’t shine where one of his rodents lay dead and alone in the dark.

He expired behind the plaster walls with only a rank bouquet as his final resting mark.

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Since I cannot locate his corpse, rotting in some unseen space, for proper sacramental burial,

may this kitchen table verse, its stinky rhymes written with wrinkled nose, be his soul’s carry-all.

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I first saw you, up close, when I discovered your poops, scattered behind the pasta on my cabinet shelf.

How shocked we both were when I found you still hiding in the Santa cup, that sneaky old elf.

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You scrambled from the plastic mug, your gray body only inches from my eyes, and I screamed.

With the smell of your passing now filling my head, I confess this is the ending I dreamed.

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When the cats saw you on the back porch the next day, scurrying under the plants, I let them outside to find you.

My hope, I must say, was that they would stalk and pounce and be anything but kind to you.

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The undoubtable confirmation of your permanent demise should be a joyful pest expulsion.

Alas, the lingering vapors of sulfur dioxide, methane, and benzene just fill me with revulsion.

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O Mouse, wee mouse, house mouse, you’ve inspired some of the greatest cartoon characters.

Mickey and Jerry, Mighty and Fievel, I drank in their stories like ambrosia’s nectars.

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Only you would be stirring, scampering deep in the night, while the rest of us lay sleeping.

Not even a clock striking or blindness or a farmer’s wife’s knifing could stop your creeping.

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Long before the moving pictures, the poems, even the books, humans honored your small mousy ways.

Your presence meant an abundance of food, and you were a prophet back in the days.

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Some believed that you gnawed through the weapons of the enemy on the evening before battle.

For all your good deeds and entertaining adventures, though, it’s time to skedaddle.

***

Mystics say your spirit shows small actions can achieve great goals, if you don’t get too picky.

As a totem mouse, you bring wisdom to my life, no matter how icky.

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Despite the billowing fetor of your current state, you’re an orderly and fastidious creature.

Modest, resourceful, orderly and loyal, I should adopt some of your best features.

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Once considered a carrier of souls, the incense now burns to carry you across the threshold.

For my wishing your death, let this sage smoke atone and release your odor’s stranglehold.

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Experts say it may take weeks for the stench of your decomposition to finally dissipate.

Until then, remind me to smell life’s sweetness, before I reach the same fate.

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