“Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’” Mark 8:23
Des Plaines, Illinois, near Chicago – 1971
Dad’s transfer orders have arrived and will be taking us from Illinois to Colorado Springs by summer’s end. I don’t want to leave. I have lots of friends here, and I’ve loved living here, but orders are orders.
Des Plaines is the closet thing to “normal” I’ve ever known. Spring always offers one hysteria-filled dash home from the park as tornado sirens wail ominously in the distance. Then, hurrying to the front porch, I sit and watch the storm roll in. Not a particularly smart thing to do, but there’s absolutely nothing more exciting to me than a mid-western thunderstorm.
Summer is hot and humid so we spend most of our days at the Chippewa Jr. High School pool cooling off. We work on our suntans and our swan dives. We worry about bad haircuts, first days at school, and boys turning bad. In the fall, our block blazes with amber, umber, and yellow as leaves change color, die off and fall to the ground. Then we spend hours raking up the leaves and doing flips into the piles we create. We play freeze tag in the front yard, ding-dong-ditch at the Clifton’s, and football at Cornell Park. In the winter, the park department floods the field by the pool so we can ice-skate. Yes, Des Plaines is the kind of place I always imagined I’d come “from” if Dad wasn’t in the military, but he is in the military, so no changing that.
I don’t have a hometown. I didn’t go to the same school from Kindergarten all the way through elementary school because we moved every 18 months. Being stationed all over the world makes me feel rootless and unhinged most of the time. America is supposed to be “home,” but I’ve lived outside its borders longer than inside, so it doesn’t feel like home. Because I was born in Africa, I hold dual citizenship; which only adds to my anxiety about where I am truly from. I am American, but feel foreign. I am from everywhere, but hail from nowhere. I have no identifiable accent, but quickly pick up local speech patterns wherever I go. I am an enigma.
Unlike most of my peers, I come from an invisible sub-culture not defined by geography. Having no hometown to provide my identity, I belong to the world. I am defined by rite, ritual, tradition, faith and patriotism. The military routine has embossed continuity in my heart while all about me has been relentless, chaotic upheaval. Sandi, Randy, and I know how to endure the hard, the difficult, and severe. Even if given a trial by fire, we will not quit. Quitting has never been allowed, so it never will be an option. We have Brattitude, and I for one, am proud of it.
Sandi and Randy used to call me a brat at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha when I was just four. I tried to hurl it back at them by calling them “B-A-R-T-S,” but only became the butt of their jokes when I couldn’t spell it correctly. They were right, though; I was a brat. Hopefully, I’m not a brat brat anymore, but a Brat – a proud Air Force Brat. I was right too – Sandi and Randy are also Brats, but I finally learned how to spell it, with a capital “B.” We grew up Air Force. We grew up military. We are strong, independent, disciplined and perfectionistic. We are living, breathing oxy-morons – independent dependents, resolutely flexible, traditional visionaries. We stand alone, yet leave no one behind. We make friends easily, but draw close to almost no one.
I may not have a hometown, but I search for one. Rummaging through this world, I’m always culling for something that feels like home. I seek to find a purpose for my days, meaning for the chaos, or just plain belonging in the cosmos. Periodically, I find bits and pieces of wholeness, but most of what I find is simply the remnants of a left over life at the end of a fabric bolt – never enough to make something substantial.
So, I question. Why does everyone else have a place in this world and I don’t? When am I ever going to land somewhere permanently so I can get to know people? Why do we have to move to Colorado? What’s going to happen when we get there? How will I get along without my friends?
Somehow it feels like there is forward momentum in the questioning, so I trudge on following the leads. I question everything. Socrates questioned. He taught his pupils to question. They killed him for it.
I can’t help it. I push on.
How will I survive this permanent impermanence?
I interview others. I read a Holy Book. I grill God. He doesn’t answer.
Police investigations run on the rails of inquiry. Who, what, when, where, why, or why not form the foundation of every case. Pursuing the unknown often leads to discovery – here is what happened in this situation. Sometimes, however, pursuing the unknown leads to doubt – this explanation doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t align with the facts. Either way, something unravels. An alibi, an explanation, or a lie, they all fray in the face of the answered question. Truth exposes flaw. Fiber unravels fib.
“Do you see anything?” Jesus asked.
Jesus taught with questions. They killed him too.
“Do I see anything?” I desperately try to look beyond my surroundings and into the spiritual realm.
Military images of reverence march majestically through the footlocker of my mind: “Pledge of Allegiance,” hand over heart, flag sinking to sunset, Armed Forces Day, parade rest, the monkey wrapping his tail around the flagpole, unity, celebration. Dress uniform, spit-polished shoes, folded telegram, one dog tag, a heavy heart. Flag-draped casket, caisson approaching, riderless horse, missing man, 21 guns, ramrod bugler, “Taps,” folded flag, the thanks of a grateful nation. Stand for the flag, kneel for the battle cross, weep with those who weep, render tribute to whom tribute is due, a childhood of respect. A lifetime of honor.
Civilians are their own breed, and I laugh when I think that I was afraid of them when we returned to the States from Spain in 1968. Even though we’ve lived among them for three years now, I still don’t know them much better than I did then. This still doesn’t feel like home. It will never feel like home. The base is far away and I don’t know any other Brats in Des Plaines, so it’s no wonder I never fit in. Dad has assured me that military personnel are everywhere in Colorado Springs, so there will be lots of other kids just like me! For the first moment since I heard we were being transferred, I feel excited.
“Do you see anything?” Jesus had wondered.
Blink, blink, blink. I rub my imagination.
I see…I see France; I see the afternoon we spent at the Air Force base in France last summer.
Our Opel station wagon had broken down just outside of Cavignac, so we walked across the countryside trying to find the base. The day passed slowly mile after disorienting mile. Finally, we made our way to a train station and reached Chateauroux Air Force base by nightfall. Sleep was quick and deep for all of us pressed neatly between the perfectly starched sheets of the beds at the base hotel.
Morning came, and with it, a few raindrops – nothing monsoonish, just a few sprinkles here and there. Sandi, Randy, and I decided to go to a movie on base just in case the rain decided to get serious. Dad gave Sandi plenty of money for the afternoon and dismissed us so we weren’t late for the opening cartoons.
Sandi grabbed my hand and we were off.
On the way to the theater, Randy played with his new super-ball as we ran across the base grounds. The ball bounced spasmodically and we darted here and there trying to corner and capture it once again. Rolling up to the theater marquee, the ball summited the hill and skittered down the backside into the parking lot. Randy took chase.
Suddenly, the sky opened up and heaven’s storehouse dumped directly down on us. Rain fell in gargantuan sections, like panes of clear glass. Sandi and Randy ran for cover under the gazebo by the marquee, but I saw two airmen march out of a nearby building toward the flagpole. I screeched to an immediate halt. Their posture was impeccable and synchronized rhythm flawless despite the fact that they were being pummeled by the rain. The airmen saluted the flag in anonymity before untying the cords that held it in place. They were bringing it in out of the rain. I responded by covering my heart with my right hand.
“Get out of the rain!” Sandi yelled.
“Don’t be so dumb! It’s pouring!” Randy chimed in. They both stood at attention under the marquee.
Rain drenched my hair and my clothes as the wind whipped the water sideways. There, in a rainstorm on a summer day in France with no parent watching and no authority commanding, I stopped what I was doing, stood at attention and waited. The honor guard lowered the flag without any indication the torrential rain was affecting them. Water streamed from their faces, but they made no move to wipe it away.
Carefully the guard folded the flag starting at the striped end of freedom’s bloodline. They worked their way up to the field of blue in triangle after triangle of precise alignment and perfect timing. Water began to fill the gutter I stood in, but I didn’t move. The rain crept up the sides of my tennis shoes and soaked my feet. It rained harder, and my shirt stuck to my back. I watched. I waited. I waited in silence, in trained obedience as the guard tucked the last bit of the flag into the end of the field. The guard turned to reenter the building. Their perfectly timed steps echoed across street where I still stood. I remained immovable, but not unmoved.
I am, and will always be, an Air Force Brat, and I’m incredibly proud of that.
It matters that someone left their dry building in a rainstorm to protect that flag. It matters that they sacrificed their own comfort that day. It matters that they didn’t flinch. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and Coast Guard members have fought for that flag all around the world. It matters that the unseen guard carefully drew 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 came a feeling I’d never experienced before; it was ownership. That flag – that flag they were folding; it’s my flag, my only symbol of home.
It matters to me.
To all the military Brats serving in our country and around the world today – thank you for your sacrifices, thank you for enduring the long deployments, and Happy Armed Forces Day to you!
From a grateful nation.
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.