Lost Somewhere in France – Summer, 1968
Heat snakes like the charmed vipers of Morocco rise off the railroad tracks just ahead of us. We’ve been walking for miles in the blistering summer heat of France, trying to find a train station to catch a ride back to civilization.
Our Opel station wagon broke down outside of Cavignac, leaving us stranded. There is some kind of national holiday going on, so finding somebody to help seems to be above and beyond what anyone wants to do. So we walk. We make our way on foot trying to reach Chateauroux Air Force Base to spend the night.
Randy marches on ahead of Dad then Mom. Sandi and I lag way behind distracted by the weight of our own feet. A nearby dog detects strangers within his territory and throws a canine fit to warn his master of our advance. A farmer suddenly appears with a shotgun and stands at his property line as we pass on the tracks below. Dad doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t speak. He stares straight ahead and keeps walking. We all fall in line and match Dad’s cadence even though the farmer is now yelling at us in French, which none of us understands. We ignore his tirade.
Bright red poppies poke their spectacular heads above the rise. For a moment I am distracted from the farmer’s gun by the beautiful flowers dancing in the breeze. The cheery poppies look just like lollipops dotting the hillsides – almost good enough to eat I tell my mother.
“Don’t ever eat one of those flowers, Donna,” Mom warns in her sternest mother’s voice. “They are poisonous,” she says. Her last “s” hisses like a Moroccan viper. “That’s an opium field,” she adds.
They don’t seem poisonous-s-s-s to me. They have adorable little yellow smiles inside their petal buckets. How could something so cute be deadly? I reach over and pick a long-stemmed poppy.
Randy keeps his eye on the farmer and his dog while Dad trudges ahead toward Chateauroux. Meanwhile, Mom begins to quote poetry, which she often does to fill the air space when we all need a distraction. She majored in English in college and believes we should all want to learn poetry. We don’t.
“‘In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row. That mark our place; and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing fly. Scarce heard amid the guns below.’”
“What’s Flanders Field?” I ask, knowing full well that a volume of literary spew is coming, but I’m intrigued by how beauty and violence is combined in the same poem.
“It’s a field in Belgium where they buried soldiers during World War I,” my mother explains.
“Is Belgium farther than Chateauroux?” I wonder aloud.
We have only a few days left of our last vacation in Europe. When we get back to Sevilla, our new orders will have arrived and we will ship out from San Pablo Air Force Base. The threat of Vietnam lurks ominously over Dad’s inbox on base.
“Dad?” I ask, hopping from one railroad tie to the next.
“Hmm,” he grunts.
“Will you be going to Vietnam?” I probe, hoping he laughs and tells me how silly I am for asking. But he doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t say anything for a long, long, long time.
“Don’t know,” he finally says, but it gives me no relief.
“Could you be going to Vietnam?”
I desperately want Dad’s reassurance that he will not be sent into a war zone, but he gives me none. I would even welcome his phony reassurance, but that’s not Dad’s standard operating procedure. Truth, no matter how brutal it may be, is always better than false hope or exaggerated promises, because in the military, death is as real an option as is life.
“War is stupid,” I snort in the most adult sounding, highly educated, well-informed voice I can find hiding out in my eight year-old body.
“Don’t ever say a soldier giving his life for freedom is stupid!” Dad fires back with an emotion not exactly anger, but very close to rage. I’ve never heard the tone before, and hope I never hear it again.
“There are worse things than war,” my father says, but I don’t believe him.
“I hate war,” I retaliate at my father.
“You’re supposed to hate it,” Dad says before his head and heart disappear into heat waves of the waning afternoon sun.
We plod on toward Chateauroux while my own heart returns to my never-ending silent plea of, “Please, God, don’t let them send Dad to Vietnam. Please don’t let them, please don’t let them…” We reach another spectacular poppy field. The blood-red flowers pump worry through the arteries of my heart.
* * * * *
The afternoon passes slowly mile after endless disorienting mile. Finally, we make our way to the train station and reach Chateauroux Air Force base by nightfall. Sleep is quick and deep for all of us pressed neatly between the perfectly starched sheets of the beds at the hotel.
Morning comes, and with it a few raindrops – nothing monsoonish, just a few sprinkles. Sandi, Randy, and I decide to go to a movie on base just in case the rain decides to get serious. Mom gives Sandi plenty of money for the afternoon and dismisses us so we’re not late for the opening cartoons.
I grab my military ID card from the nightstand and notice yesterday’s poppy lying listless on the nightstand. It is dead.
Sandi yanks my hand and we’re off.
On the way to the theater, Randy plays with his new super-ball as we run across the base grounds. The ball bounces spasmodically and we dart here and there trying to corner and capture it once again. Rolling up to the theater marquee, the ball summits the hill and skitters down the backside into the parking lot. Randy takes chase.
Suddenly, the sky opens up and all of heaven’s storehouse dumps directly down on us. Rain falls in gargantuan sections, like panes of clear glass. Sandi and Randy run for cover under the gazebo by the marquee, but I see two airmen march out of a nearby building toward the flagpole. I screech to an immediate halt. Their posture is impeccable and synchronized rhythm flawless despite the fact that they are being pummeled by the rain. The airmen salute the flag in anonymity before untying the cords that have held it in place. I respond by covering my heart with my right hand.
“Get out of the rain!” Sandi yells.
“Don’t be so dumb! It’s pouring!” Randy chimes in. They both stand at attention under the marquee.
Rain drenches my hair and my clothes as the wind whips the water sideways. There in a rainstorm on a summer day in France with no parent watching and no authority commanding, I stop what I’m doing, stand at attention and wait. The honor guard lowers the flag without any indication the torrential rain is affecting them. Water streams from their faces, but they make no move to wipe it away.
The guard carefully folds the flag starting at the striped end of freedom’s bloodline. They work their way up to the field of blue in triangle after triangle of precise alignment and perfect timing. Water begins to fill the gutter I’m standing in, but I don’t move. The rain creeps up the sides of my tennis shoes and soaks my feet. It rains harder, and my shirt sticks to my back. I watch. I wait.
I wait in silence, in trained obedience as the guard tucks the last bit of the flag into the end of the field.
It matters that someone left their dry building in a rainstorm to protect that flag. It matters that they have sacrificed their own comfort. It matters that they don’t flinch. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and Coast Guardsmen are fighting for that flag all around the world today while this unseen guard carefully draws it down in silent respect. Their commitment to protect and defend the United States matters. Their defense of our constitution matters, and their special care of America’s defining symbol matters. Then comes a feeling I’ve never experienced before as an Air Force Brat; ownership. That flag, that flag they are folding is my flag; my only symbol of home.
It matters to me.
The guard turns to reenter the building from where they came. Their perfectly timed steps echo across street where I still stand. I remain immovable, but not unmoved.
“I don’t want Dad to go into a war zone,” I appeal to the Supreme Commander of the universe.
San Pablo Air Force Base, Sevilla, Spain – July, 1968
“Chicago?” Sandi, Randy and I moan. “Who wants to go to Chicago?” whines Sandi.
“No, Chi-CAGO!” My parents cheer when they emphasize that Dad’s orders have assigned him Stateside. Well, they have a point. At least it isn’t Vietnam.
The United States of America, August 1968
By the time our TWA plane touches down on the tarmac at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, we have been away for three years. Although I have never been to McGuire before, things around me instantly feel familiar. First of all, everyone is speaking English. Secondly, I smell American food! The smell of hamburgers, fries, and spicy mustard wafts deliciously through the building. Several uniformed airmen walk by, heels clicking smartly on the tiled floor, saluting one another in a silent waltz of authority and respect.
We make it to the outskirts of Chicago and begin the search for the new house to put our itinerant home in. Although Chicago wasn’t on our list of hoped-for cities, Vietnam certainly wasn’t on anyone’s wish list either, so we all adapt instantly. Despite being sent into unfamiliar territory, there is incredible, tangible relief that, at least Dad wasn’t being sent into a warzone.
If we had only known…
Dad’s new assignment is located in downtown Chicago. Because he’s not stationed on an Air Force base, we will be living off base in “civilian” housing. There has been a lot of talk between Mom and Dad about associating with civilians and wearing civilian clothes. I’m not exactly sure if a civilian is a disease or a foreigner, but from the context of the conversations I’ve heard, there seems to be plenty of reasons to fear them. My father’s commander has highlighted the danger of wearing military uniforms to and from work because of growing harassment by anti-war protesters. Many military personnel have been spit on and roughed up on their way into the city. When Dad reports for duty next week, he may become one of their targets too.
1968 has already been a horrible year for violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April, and Senator Robert Kennedy was shot in June. Hundreds of US soldiers were either killed or wounded during the Tet Offensive, making this the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War so far. In the face of so many dead, home-front support for the war has collapsed and revolution is taking its place. Demonstrators threaten bloodshed within our own borders if America does not get out of Vietnam.
Nowhere are their threats more severe than in the city of Chicago, during the last week of August, when the Democratic National Convention will meet to select a presidential candidate. With Senator Kennedy’s horrific assassination during the primaries and anti-war feelings raging out of control, tensions all across the nation are boiling over, and we’re right in the middle of the pot.
Not only have we been deployed to a warzone, but to the front of the frontline of a war zone!
Having just come from Spain where we rarely saw television, we have not realized the danger that’s congregating just a few miles down the interstate from us. Sandi and I sit on the bed at the Travelodge Motel playing War with a deck of cards. She’s winning. Randy lies on the bed watching Huckleberry Hound cartoons on the TV. A television newscaster suddenly appears in place of Randy’s cartoon.
“We interrupt this broadcast with the latest from the streets of Chicago…”
The newscaster reports that a large group of students from the Youth International Party is assembling in Grant Park. The “yippies,” as they are more commonly called, are organizing to protest at the upcoming political convention. Mayor Daley has requested that the Illinois National Guard be put on full alert to assist Chicago police with security in the event of rioting. Chicagoans are cautioned not to panic, but to be observant. Apparently, there is even suspicion that the yippies might put LSD in the water system. Mayor Daley appeals for calm, assuring us that law and order will be maintained.
The television screen then explodes with scenes right out of a war movie. Riot police march toward the park while being taunted by protesters. Illinois National Guardsmen assemble at Soldier Field to support the Chicago police. Military vehicles, outfitted with barbed wire, roll down the street providing back-up to any and all who may need it. The final scene shows a city maintenance crew sealing manhole covers with tar to prevent “hoodlums” from escaping into the underground. Nervous silence descends over the streets of Chicago, as well as, in our hotel room. Stunned, no one says a word.
Dad enters the hotel room much to our relief. A second news bulletin suddenly interrupts the first one. The newscaster reports that Warsaw Pact nations have just invaded Czechoslovakia. Immediately the camera cuts to a column of Soviet tanks charging across the Charles Bridge in the capitol city.
Not understanding that two continents and an ocean separate me from Czechoslovakia, I fear those tanks are rolling along Michigan Avenue in Chicago. For all I know, the Soviets are coming to help the protesters and will turn their guns on us. Violence and fear fill my world and I just want to go “home” to Sevilla where we were isolated and never heard any of this. But Sevilla is no longer home, and America now needs my father.
“That,” my father says, “is worse than war. It’s never right to allow the bullies of this world to take over, be they hippy, yippy, or communist.”
“But the Czechoslovakians aren’t even fighting back,” I argue. “Maybe it’s a good thing.”
“Believe me,” my father says, “the people of Czechoslovakia don’t want this. This is an invasion. Anyone who opposes it will be persecuted, if not shot. I’m sure they are suffering already; we just don’t see it.”
Our anxiety with the violent turmoil swirling around us manifests concrete. Mom and Dad quickly move in to provide assurance that God’s strength is stronger than any army that marches, his authority greater than any government that rules, and his love for us far deeper than any violent hate mankind can spit at each other. They remind us that the government does not rest on the shoulders of the North Vietnamese, the Soviet Union, the United States, or even on the anti-war protesters who are attempting a revolution. No, my parents tell us, the government rests on the strong and capable shoulders of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave his life for us, and that sacrifice was made for my spiritual freedom.
America’s freedom matters. The ultimate sacrifice others have offered for my freedom matters, but I can’t celebrate the 4th of July without celebrating my own spiritual “Independence Day.”
God’s sacrifice matters too…it matters to me.
“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36
(Portions of this entry are contained in the newly released book, Stories of Faith and Courage from the HomeFront. Copyright © 2012 by Jocelyn Green, and Karen Whiting. Published by God & Country Press, an imprint of AMG Publishers – All rights reserved.)
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.