Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Meditation on The Veteran I Love Most of All

My dad joined the Army in 1944. He was drafted into service, but he tried to enlist even before he received his draft notice. He wanted to enlist, I think, because he didn't know what else to do with himself. Options were limited, in those days, especially for a guy with a background like my father's.

My dad grew up in the eye of a storm of dysfunction. His own father was rarely around—and even when he was, he certainly didn't do much to support the large family he'd helped to create. By the time my dad was 15 years old, in 1941, his mother was pregnant again and his father was nowhere to be found. My grandmother died under what were always represented as mysterious circumstances; "some kind of cancer, probably," was what my dad told me when I was younger. They had no money for doctors, and medicine was primitive at best, so it made sense to me that the cause of her death might be more or less unknown. More recently, though, my dad told me that his sister Pat claimed their mother's death was due to a self-induced abortion. It made sense, he said, given the way she died.

I don't know what that means, exactly—and to be honest, I really don't want to know.  But it pains me that my father had to see whatever he saw at the end of his mother's life.

My grandmother died on my dad's 15th birthday: October 23rd, 1941. After that, he was on his own. His two older sisters were already gone—one got married, and one just disappeared after saying "None of you will ever see me again." No one did. As the oldest kid left in the house, then, it was my dad's responsibility to make sure his brothers and sisters had shoes for their mother's funeral. Most of them didn't. (In October. In Iowa.) That meant a trip to the welfare office in town, where they all got vouchers that allowed them to purchase shoes at a local store. And after the funeral, they scattered to live with various relatives. Except my dad, and his brother Mike: they were old enough to take care of themselves, apparently. My dad had long since stopped going to school, so he and Mike worked for room and board on various farms. After a few years, my dad enlisted. Going to war must have seemed like a more honorable way to make a living.

In spite of the fact that he served in two wars—World War II and Korea—was shot twice, and still carries a piece of a grenade in his left arm, I don't think my dad has ever regretted his military service. In the Army, he rose through the ranks to Master Sergeant and learned how to be a leader. He taught ROTC for many years, both at the university and high school level. When I was very young, it wasn't uncommon for people who saw him out in public somewhere—like the K-mart parking lot, for instance—to snap to attention and salute. He wasn't in the service anymore, but his ROTC students remembered him. I was always convinced that my dad must be vaguely famous in the military world. I once asked him why he watched the violence of the Vietnam War play out on the evening news, and he said "I'm watching to see if they need me to go back." I fully expected to hear Walter Cronkite speak his name some evening, asking him to report for duty immediately.

A few weeks ago, one of those ROTC students—now an old man himself—wrote my dad a letter. He'd heard that my father's health is failing, and he wrote to thank my dad for being an example of the kind of man he wanted to become. "I am the man I am today because of you," he wrote. I'm not sure my dad remembers his military service, at this point, or even his years of teaching ROTC, but I choose to believe he can understand that he made a difference in the lives of other people.

None of my father's children have chosen lives of military service. My dad never encouraged us to do that. He never discouraged it, either, but I think he worked hard to make sure we had many options. He was strict about all of us getting good grades because he'd seen how limited his own career prospects were, outside the military, by his GED and lack of a college degree. When he met with a job counselor after being discharged from the army, that counselor looked at his file and said "I really don't know what kind of job you're qualified for—we don't have much call for a hired gun out here in the real world."

I didn't hear about that encounter for twenty years after it occurred. When he did tell me about it, my father said "Can you believe someone saying that to me? This was the counselor we were supposed to meet with. He was the person who was supposed to help us veterans find jobs after we'd left the service, and he says something like that."  Those words hurt my father--not only because he was following orders, doing exactly as he'd been told by his superiors, but because in his mind, military service was only honorable. He retired from the service in 1966. In the pre-Vietnam world of his tenure in the army, prior to the general questioning of authority that became part of the fabric of our culture, there was no question in anyone's mind that being a soldier would be a respectable way to make a living. And respectability was, above all things, my father's goal in life. After his first 18 years, respectability was the only thing he believed to be of value. For someone to suggest that his military service had been anything less than honorable was not just hurtful—it was potentially shattering.

He moved on, though, just as he moved on from everything else in his life that might have destroyed him or made him bitter. That kind of grit is part of my father's DNA, and he was always devoted to the idea that everyone is entitled to an opinion--even an opinion that he found personally hurtful. That was part of what he fought for, after all.  "Somebody else's bad attitude is never an excuse for yours," he told me, on more than occasion.  So he found a job on his own, with the postal service, and rose through the ranks again, this time into middle management. He and my mother played bingo at the NCO Club on the nearby National Guard base. Eventually, he started going to meetings at the VFW lodge. He remained proud of his military service, no matter what anyone else wanted to think about it. When I was home for his birthday this year, we took him out to dinner and he wore the Purple Heart baseball cap he wears anytime he leaves the house. We sang Happy Birthday over dessert. Just before we left, another customer walked past our table on his way out of the restaurant and stopped to shake my father's hand. "Happy Birthday, sir. Thank you for your service," he said. My father nodded—a little confused, I think, as to whether this was someone he should recognize—then thanked the man in return.

I thought about my dad yesterday afternoon when I heard a young student on my campus—a member of the reserves, once deployed and now getting the college education my father never received—fulminating to one of my colleagues about, among many other things, the lack of appreciation among college students for veterans like himself. "These people need to be sent to a third world country where you have to fight for your life instead of just living off someone else's effort," he said. "Then maybe they'd shut up with their opinions about this war and just show a little gratitude."

Here's what I would have liked to say to that young man:  My dad didn't fight two wars for the sake of gratitude. He fought for his own sense of self-worth. He fought so that I would have the right to disagree with you about prayer in public schools, the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and probably a million other things, in spite of the fact that you clearly believe I haven't earned the right to have an opinion. My father is carrying around a piece of shrapnel in his arm precisely so that I do have that right. You characterize that as "living off someone else's effort."  My dad would not.  He would call it a privilege he was proud to provide for both of us, even though he never met you. 

My father and I don't agree on many things, but I know we agree on this point: our rights, as American citizens, are worthy of respect from soldiers and civilians alike. We should never take them for granted, or forget the sacrifices made to provide and protect them.  But the people who go to war to defend those rights have to earn respect, in the same way every other human being does:  not by insisting that it be given to them, and not by presuming they're entitled to it. They earn respect by being respectable people, regardless of what they've had to endure, and by acting respectfully toward others--including and especially those who hold opinions and beliefs they don't share.

Happy Veteran's Day to my dad, and to all the honorable men and women out there who gladly defend our right to disagree.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Thoughts On a Trip to Boise

1.  I got to the airport Thursday morning around 5:15 for a 6:30 flight out of San Antonio.  I didn't expect a big crowd so early on a random weekday morning, but as it happened all three lanes of traffic in front of Terminal 1 were jam-packed.  Once I'd gotten out of the car and Froggered my way to the terminal, I saw the security screening line was already backed up into the ticketing area and wrapped around a corner.  The friendly Airport Amigo that was managing the line assured us it would move quickly, and it did.

When I arrived in Boise, I called my mom to tell her my plane had landed.  Then I waited with about six other people for our luggage to make its rounds on the baggage carousel.  Then I walked out of the terminal, where I found four other people waiting for their rides.  Maybe ten cars drove by while we stood there.  Three of those cars picked up the people waiting with me on the curb.  One, of course, was my mom.

2.  Thursday afternoon, my brother stopped by our parents' house.  He doesn't do this very often; we're still not sure why he happened to drop by that day.  My sister has been staying with our parents several nights a week since my dad's health started to decline, and she came home from work early that day.  So we all ended up sitting around the dining room table, eating Costco pumpkin pie together.  I really can't remember the last time just the five of us sat at that table.

Later, my mom reported that my dad--who doesn't always know who I am, or where he is, or even how old he is these days--said to her, "It sure has been a long time since we had all our kids around the table, hasn't it?"

3. Early Friday morning, I went for a run while it was still pretty cold outside.  I got so excited by the sight of my own breath that I felt a little ridiculous.  My parents live next door to a city park, so I started out with a lap around the walking path that runs along the outside edge.  About halfway through my lap, I ran up on a small bevy of quail.

I'd forgotten all about quail.  They probably exist in some part of the bird sanctuary that is Texas, but not in my suburban neighborhood.  When we lived in Boise, my husband and I rented a small house on a huge lot that was a favorite gathering place of the neighborhood quail--at minimum, there were ten quail in our yard at any given time.  So I was really glad to see these guys.

Quail are skittish, so I expected them to fly off as soon as I came near them.  They didn't, though--not right away.  They took off at a run, first, their top-knots bobbing, and for awhile they just ran along beside me.

4.  I didn't realize how much I love the sound of Canada Geese honking their way south for the winter until I heard a wedge of them overhead later in my run.  I got all teary and stopped running so I could watch them fly off toward the mountains.

5.  After my run, I headed for the grocery store and found myself caught in a time warp as I drove away from my parents' house, listening to "You Shook Me All Night Long" on the oldies radio station.

6.  At the grocery store, I bought a few things to make marinara sauce--my mom had grown one enormous tomato that must have weighed two pounds on its own, and it was getting a little squishy from having been handled and shown off.  So I offered to make a batch of sauce while she went out to get her hair done.  I used the monster tomato (and six smaller ones), plus some olive oil, onions, garlic, and fresh basil.  When the home health aide came to check up on my dad, she said "Whatever you're making in there smells pretty amazing." I felt more like myself in that moment than I think I ever have in my parents' house.
7.  Friday afternoon, I met my friend Steph for coffee.  She asked if it was too cold for me to sit outside while we talked.  It was 70 degrees that afternoon.  "I'm not that much of a wimp," I said. "Well, you never know," she said.  "Last time you were here, it was 65 degrees and you were shivering the whole time."

8.  A chai latte from Lucy's is so, so, so much better than a chai latte from Starbucks.

9.  Saturday morning we went to the open air market downtown.  The artist who creates and sells key chains made from Scrabble tiles didn't have an X tile with a map on the back, to replace the one my son lost since our last trip to Boise, so that was a disappointment.  I wound up buying my kids U. of Idaho t-shirts instead.  They already have Boise State shirts, but only because I was desperate for souvenirs the last time I made a solo trip and the airport gift shops, predictably, sell only the spirit gear for the hometown team.  I cheer for Boise State, but I do it around a lump in my throat.  When people see my kids' shirts and ask if I went to BSU, I always clarify that I'm from Boise, but I went to U of I and later taught at BSU.  Idaho is too small a place for serious rivalries, but I'll never be able to cheer for BSU with a clear conscience.

10.  BSU beat San Jose State in a Saturday evening game. I had to quit watching when the score hit 28-0.  The final score was something like 45-0.

11.  Sunday morning, I woke up before the alarm went off at 5:00--my brain was still on Texas time, as it had been the whole time I was visiting.  My sister drove me to the airport on completely empty roads, and I walked right up to the ticket counter when I got to the airport.  No line, no waiting.  There are bonuses to living in a small town.  I hope I never forget that.

12.  A vanilla latte from Moxie Java is so, so, so much better than a vanilla latte from Starbucks.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I'll Fly Away

I'm heading for Boise tomorrow morning, bright and early.  I wish I enjoyed traveling more than I do, but the fact of the matter is that it makes me very nervous.  I'm not exactly sure why.  I'm not afraid of accidents--I know they can't be predicted or avoided (which is why they're called accidents), so I don't live in fear of them.  I'm not afraid of anything, really, except getting sick in-flight, and that's controllable with medication.

Perhaps what makes me nervous is that travel involves functioning on someone else's schedule.  I'm neurotically punctual, so I can't stand being on a plane that's late.  I really, really hate missing a connecting flight.  When I have a schedule, I want to stick to it.  The logical part of my brains knows it's really no big deal--there's always another flight, or a hotel room with my name on it--but I still can't seem to resist getting stressed out before I talk myself down.  This is the price of being a control freak.  

It's more than just the travel, though.  When we were younger and first married, my husband and I traveled a lot.  We visited lots of big cities, we went to Europe, we took road trips just for the sake of getting out of town--staying home was the last thing on our minds.  These days, though, that's what makes us both happier than anything else.  A nice long afternoon at home, baking bread and reading a book--that's my idea of a perfect day.  My friend Denise told me once that her sons often worry about her spending so much time at home; "Don't you get lonely?  Don't you want to get out of the house and be around people?"  And Denise has to explain, once again, that she did plenty of getting out in another chapter of her life.  It's just not an interesting prospect anymore.

I'm only visiting family, not a foreign country, so I'll have plenty of time for hanging out at home.  My mom's home.  The house where I grew up.  But it always feels like home again after I've been there for awhile.    

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Homeward Bound

We're having Fall Break at my university next week (for friends in the north, it's like a miniature Spring Break--we get next Thursday and Friday off.)  I'm heading to Boise for the 4-day weekend.  I love the fall in Idaho, so I'm looking forward to having some time among the turning leaves.  Fall is the one thing I really miss here in Texas.  I thought I'd miss winter when we moved here, but not so much.  Turns out you can live a long and happy life without snow.

I'm a little nervous about my trip home, though--partly because my dad's health has been declining pretty steadily for the last few years, and I haven't seen him since this time last year, when we flew to Boise for my niece's wedding.  I'm expecting to be shocked by how much he's aged, and I know that caring for him is taking a toll on my mother as well.  I doubt either of them will look like the people I remember.  Beyond having to face these rather difficult realities, though, I'm always a little nervous about going to Boise.

I know that sounds silly.  How can you be nervous about visiting your home town?  But these are the facts:  I never felt like Boise was where I belonged.  After I left Idaho, I fell in love with the idea of it; while I was living there, I couldn't wait to leave.  I love mountains, and I always feel at home when I'm within visual distance of them.  The smell of pine trees makes me deeply happy in a way few things do.  But being in Boise makes me remember how it felt to be a powerless teenager in a place I just didn't belong, which is a feeling I'd just as soon forget.

It's not that I don't like the place.  On the contrary, I really love my little hometown.  It's just that I don't know how to be there as a grown-up, I guess. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

30 Days of Blogging, Day 30: A letter to yourself at 20

We're at the finish line!  Thank you everyone who has read this past month's worth of blogs and told me about it.  I've appreciated knowing that I wasn't just talking to myself for the last 30 days.

Dear 20-year-old Pam,

You've spent most of your life being told that you're smart.  But here's something you need to know:  you really don't know much.  Remember that the next time someone tries to give you some advice--it's possible they know what they're talking about and you, smart one, do not.  Here are the words of advice I hope you'll accept from me.  

1.  Keep a low overhead.  It will be many years before a famous writer says this to you, and by that time it will be way too late to heed this very sensible advice.  So let me just tell you right now:  there are many, many things you can do without.  (That peach silk dress, for example--don't buy it.  You'll never wear it, and you'll feel sick to your stomach every time you see it hanging in your closet.)  Keep in mind that money is freedom.  The more of it you have, the more control you have over your time.       

2.  You don't have to be a prodigy.  It really doesn't matter how quickly you do things; doing them is the point.  Give yourself a break.  It takes time to figure out what you're doing, especially with something like writing, which gets better the longer you do it(And seriously, does anyone even remember those writers who were the prodigies of your generation?  Either they're still writing or they're not.  No one remembers when they started.)    

3.  You're fine on your own.  Perhaps it's because you grew up with parents who were joined at the hip; I don' know.  For some reason, you're pretty much convinced that you can't live a long and happy life without a romantic partner.  But here's the thing:  you're going to drive across the country to go to graduate school all by yourself.  Then you're going to figure out how to do graduate-level research and write award-winning papers and short stories. You will do all of this without a partner.  (He'll be along presently.  And trust me, he's more than worth the wait.)  So believe me when I say that you're fineIn fact, you will come to the conclusion that you're not interested in marriage at all.  And this is when you'll meet the guy who will convince you that, actually, you are.       

4.  Don't be so afraid.  People make mistakes, and most of them don't end in disaster.  They're not always the result of carelessness.  You'll learn, you'll move on--it's part of life.  But being afraid of making mistakes will keep you from doing a lot of things, and being afraid to ask questions will also keep you from learning. You're not supposed to know everything.  Smart people know enough to recognize what they don't know.  In fact, smart people know there's always more to learn.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

30 Days of Blogging, Day 29: Something you hope to accomplish

I'd really like to be able to making a living from my writing, at some point in my life.  It doesn't have to be limited to fiction writing; I'd be very happy to get paid for writing my food blog, or any other kind of blog, for that matter.  It would make me very happy not to leave the house when I go to work in the morning.  (That's my borderline agoraphobia showing itself again.)  I love teaching, but that's something I could certainly do part-time if writing were my primary gig. 

Everything I've read suggests that establishing a money-making blog takes at least three years, so this is a long-term goal.  And, of course, I have two children who will need to go to college in the next ten years--so it's very unlikely that I will give up working a full-time job anytime soon.  But if I were able to retire a little early because of my writing income, that would be good enough for me.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

30 Days of Blogging, Day 28: Something you have to forgive someone else for

Like the "someone who disappointed you" post, this is stuff I'd rather not think about.  I like to believe that I forgive and forget the past, and generally I think that's true.  I'm not a grudge-holder; that takes way too much energy away from much more important things.  Holding on to anger punishes you, not the person you're angry at.

With that said, I'll admit that there are people I find it difficult to forgive.  One of those is a former professor toward whom I still harbor some hard feelings.  She's very famous, and having her name on my resume has always been an enormous benefit to me--my usual reply, when someone mentions her, is "I was very lucky to have the chance to work with her."  That's true, so I don't mind saying it.  And I know that saying anything negative about her just makes me look bad, because she's accomplished a lot and I can't say the same.  So I just don't say anything about her, most of the time.     

But I still believe that she didn't need to be as unkind and dismissive as she was.  Once you've had some measure of success, I think you can afford to be a little more gracious to people who are struggling and just getting started.  She said things that honestly made me question whether I should even bother to continue writing.  If she didn't think I was good enough to get published, she might have just let me find that out when I didn't get published.  Instead, she seemed intent on letting me know that my work wasn't even worthy of her attention.

I don't know if I hold a grudge against her, exactly.  I don't think I do.  I don't feel angry when I think about her; I don't feel like she's undeserving of the success she's had.  But I do feel like I'll have to forgive her, eventually, for offering so little of what I expected when I signed up for her workshop, and for having a heart so much less generous than her work suggests.