I received a text from my brother; "give me a call when you can."
It's almost always a good thing. But, he lives closest to my parents, and I tend to feel a twinge. I know that one of these days the news may be difficult.
My father is retired air force. As is my sister. I have another brother who was in the reserves.
"We're an Air Force Family" said the bumper sticker on our childhood family car.
My brother called to ask if I wanted to see air force play in the bowl game.
"Of course I would." The fact that they were playing in Tucson meant I'd be able to see the grandkids and the familiar sites of Arizona- a place I called home for three decades.
It also meant seeing the young cadets play football. My sister had gone to the academy. A student athlete, she endured the rigors of a demanding cadet lifestyle of drills and classwork accompanied by the privilege to represent school and country.
My son-in-law is also in the Air Force. We'd be watching the game with him, and his son who is a huge football fan who is also the age I was when my father went to war. (here's where the memory sequences begin.)
My mom had converted a huge whiteboard into a year-long calendar. On it she'd mark each day with an x. This mark represented the one-more-day of endurance until her husband would come home from his year in Vietnam.
I was in third grade. I hadn't been that great at writing but the circumstances turned me into a diligent corresponder. I'd work on nights and weekends crafting out something to say. For mom the words would flow. Though I could muster a weekly letter, she wrote every day.
I was also the family's official (but self appointed) letter retriever. I'd wait each day by the mailbox. A letter from dad meant he was still alive. Well, at least as of the two week old postmark.
When the mailman had a smile I knew dad had written. He'd say, "looky here sport!" before handing me the correspondence and I'd race inside to my mom's happy embrace. When the mailman had a grimace, proclaiming "no luck today" my heart would hang lower.
The plane flew high over the stadium. "your aunt Lisa has done the flyover" I told my grandson. This impressed him. Behind the plane appeareed some dots which grew larger. "Are those parachute guys?" Soldiers were doing what they've been trained to do. They guided themselves to land into the middle of the field. Two of them carried American flags. The crowd, a mix of civilians and military, erupted with cheers. On the jumbotron we would be treated to instant replay and video commemorations. This would be a day of football and heart touching remembrances of those who serve. The wife of one man who had recently passed away after a distingued carrer in the service was presented with momentos during the time out. We had seen a video of his persuits. Afterward there she was- accpeting gifts and handshakes from his fellow officers. Her humility and thanks and tears expressed that mixture of a happy sadness that I'm sorry is hers to experience.
My father would send us a mixture of letters and tapes from his post in North Vietnam. He told of a dog they'd found who'd curl up his lips when you'd give him a hard boiled egg. He hated the white part but loved the yolk. The guys in his unit loved to watch him endure the grossness to get to the good part.
He'd laugh at the story and so would we. Worlds apart we could share a joke. Later he told us the dog was missing. A week after that we were relieved to hear the dog had reappeared. If only dogs could speak. He'd had an adventure and a fresh wound on the top of his head where a bullet had grazed his head. "Lucky dog" he said.
I hoped my dad could be so lucky- to be grazed but able to arrive home, no worse for the wear. The calendar marked the days- he hadn't yet been away one-fourth-a-year.
Normally Air Force dresses in blue and gray. This I know all the more since I played high school football at San Antonio's Randolph Air Force Base. This was the only such Air Force base high school in the country; Our game uniforms mirrored those of the Air Force Academy. From our practice field we could see planes take off and land. One right after the other. My sobering thought was with the pilots. Which of them would see action? Would it be their good fortune to be mostly peacetime servants?
My father's year at war was the hardest of my life. Each day by the mailbox I wondered if this would be the day the letters stopped. When there was a three day absence of correspondence the mailman appeared ashen. "Sorry sport. Nothing again today. I'm sure there'll be something tomorrow" he said, with more hope than convincing conviction.
"Each of these players are cadets" I told my grandson. "What's that mean?" he asked. I told him, "like your father, they all put on the uniform. Every one of them is ready to serve."
For them- they have something to prove. They have less time than most to work on their game skills. Yet they tend to perform at a level above their skills. This is, at least, how I see it.
There was a time at the Air Force Academy where my sister participated in a conditioning sport called "Team Handball". Their school had been entered into a tournament. My sister, a highly decorated athlete at the high school level, had excelled at this unfamiliar sport. After her first tournament a man came up to her and asked, "how do I *not* know you?!" This is sort of an unanswerable question. He explaied that he knew every single top knotch athlete in the sport. He then asked her how long she'd been playing. When she answered "two weeks" he then said, "Well. you're on the Olympic team if you want to be."
For the next year she participated with the national team as they played here and abroad. It was her privliege to be in Berlin when the wall came down.
It was only the first quarter and the Air Force was down 21 - 3 against South Alabama. But they began to mount a come back.
They managed a field goal. Then a touch down. A player, last named "Steelhammer" was over-achieving on defense. "That's a great name for a football player!" exclaimed my grandson. Yeah- it's also a great officer name, I thought. "Captain Steelhammer. Major Steelhammer" Any one of them would work.
The typical cadet wants to be a pilot. But pilot slots are rare. My sister awaited word to see if she'd be among the lucky ones selected. She also had seen the uniform she'd be wearing in Barcelona, representing our nation in the Olympics. The first round of pilot selections came out. Her name was on it. She'd become a pilot! AND bonus- she'd be coming to Williams Air Force Base which was a few miles from our home. This was my father's last stop in the career.
My sister received a congratulations from her room mate who had not been selected. It was bitter sweet to make it in while her room mate would be awaiting the next round with fingers crossed. Pilot training would be during the Olympics. My sister would be watching Barcelona on a television set, just like the rest of us. But she'd be watching from our living room on the one day she had off.
Women were not allowed to be fighter pilots back then. By the time the next selections were announced, the rules had changed. My sister's room mate would become the first female figther pilot in U.S. history.
The Air Force's come back was in full swing. They scored again and again to take a tie in to half time. In the third quarter their lead lengthened. Steelhammer intercepted the ball. My grandson and I cheered for him- such a great name to hear over the loudspeaker. At the end of play Air Force had the acheived a resounding victoy.
From midfield they held an awards ceremony. Steelhammer was named "Defensive player of the game." He took off his helmet. My mom said, "he's a ginger, just like my brother!". As they asked Steelhammer for his thoughts on playing his last game he said something like, "Oh gosh. I'm gonna miss these guys."
The guy with the super hero name says "gosh".
And he loves his team mates.
And, I infer, he loves his country.
And as much as I hope he never goes to war, I'm proud that we have guys like him. And gals like my sister. Thousands of people ready, if asked, to defend our country.
Here I sit.
Typing for the few who who will click on this post of mine.
(And, for the fewer still who will have made it to read these concluding words.)
My feelings of war are entangled.
It has been many decades since my father went to war and made it back.
I'm an old guy now.
And I was able to sit next to the older guy who is my dad to watch these younger guys play for team and country.
And it makes me proud in a way I can never fully express.