(Today’s post is written in memory of Senator Robert F. Kennedy who was assassinated 44 years ago this week. Some of the names in this account have been changed for privacy)
“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?” Psalm 121:1
San Pablo Air Force Base, Spain – 1968
Without uttering one word, my third-grade class files into our room at Santa Clara Elementary. Nervous silence fills the gaps of our uncertainty as we make our way to our desks.
There is no banter or teasing this morning. Even Jimmy, who usually swipes the Twinkies from my lunch, is quiet. Our parents, who have oddly escorted us to our room, don’t speak when they say goodbye to us, or when they see one another in the corridor. Miss Redeker, already perched on top of her teacher’s stool, sits motionless at the front of the room with her math book open in her lap. We respond without direction and get out our books.
Susie leads the Pledge of Allegiance without an argument from Steve that it is his turn, or from Linda who always gets to do it. We plod through long division. When our math work is completed, Miss Redeker rises from her stool and turns on a radio. Armed Forces Network is reading a news bulletin:
“Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today. He was 42 years old.”
Miss Redeker turns off the radio. She pulls a large white handkerchief from the sleeve of her Irish sweater, wipes her eyes, blows her nose and says, “Please take out your language workbooks.”
She wads the handkerchief up and shoves it back up her sleeve.
Are you kidding me? Somebody just died and you’re going to shed one tear, blow your nose, and move on to language class? Did something out of the ordinary just happen here, or am I imagining it?
Regardless, we’re moving on to our language workbooks, Exercise A on the top of page 223. I don’t know who Robert Francis Kennedy is. I don’t know how he died or even why he died. But if he’s important enough to be on Armed Forces Radio and hearing about his death made my teacher cry, I think we should do more than turn to page 223.
Would somebody tell me what’s going on?
In these morning hours of June 6, 1968, I receive zero answers to my questions, but I do learn something. I learn that when someone dies, life goes on – and if you’re military, it goes on immediately.
Weeks later I stand in a friend’s living room looking through a news magazine. Senator Kennedy’s picture is on the front cover of one of them with a note about his killer, Sirhan Sirhan. I flip to the story. The article includes several pictures of mourners and bloodstains. I flip another page. More photos, more bloodstains. The magazine runs several pictures of the last days of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed just weeks before the senator. The world lurches violent.
Near the middle of the magazine is the last picture of Senator Kennedy lying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel. His haunting eyes look up at the nation he longed to lead and the God with whom He would soon meet.
“How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?”
* * * * *
School is out in Sevilla and we are waiting for Dad’s orders to come through telling us where his new duty station will be. He has requested a transfer back to the States, but only Vietnam is guaranteed. All of the men, except for the protestant chaplain, have been rotated from our base to Vietnam and Dad is sure to be next. Vietnam persistently looms over all that we do – much like a terminal disease. We endure its presence, but pray for miraculous intervention.
Our departure date is set for 31 July, so while we’re on standby, we stay busy preparing our base house for inspection. No one should ever have to suffer through a military housing inspection. It’s a nightmare. We even have to clean the wires under the stovetop. If you fail to pass inspection, it is possible you could miss your return to the States, so everyone is on edge to do it right and do it only once. When we run out of cleaning supplies, we make a quick trip to the BX for more.
While Mom and Dad get lost in housewares, I roam through the clothing section. A young lieutenant and his pregnant wife silently flip through the dress uniforms. I wonder how long it will be before he ships out and where he is going. The rack of fatigues stands at attention in front of me, and I lift a sleeve that bears the red and black insignia of the Vietnam airmen. It’s so familiar. Many Nam airmen have passed through San Pablo on leave or on their way Stateside; we always love to see them. As I walk away, I see the lieutenant drape one of the Vietnam uniforms over his arm. His wife cries. I feel sick.
“From where shall my help come?” interrupts the Voice.
“God, please don’t let them send Dad to Vietnam.”
“And if they do?” God asks.
They. Them. The powers that be. “They” control our assignment and we live in constant fear of “them” when Dad’s name is up for transfer. I often imagine “they” congregate somewhere in the corner of a dank, underground bunker lit only by a single, swaying light bulb, like the secretive battle command rooms shown in The Battle of the Bulge movie. Cigarette smoke billows throughout the room providing the perfect cover for clandestine cockroach raids on the never-ending supply of donut crumbs. All the while above the table, “they” sovereignly move Dad’s name around on some grand magnetic map of the world. Dad’s nameplate is pushed from Spain to Germany, to the Pentagon, to Vietnam, and finally settles in the States someplace.
That’s what I imagine, but it’s not really what I want to believe. I want to believe there is a greater sovereign than the United States Air Force command staff pushing names around on a map. Otherwise, why ask God to intervene? I want to believe it is God who determines my future and that his plan for me is good. I want to believe it is God, because the alternative is petrifying.
Truly, I want to believe.
What if Dad is sent to Vietnam, will I still believe in the Greater Sovereign? What if Dad is killed in the jungles of Vietnam and dies with the same bloodstains, as did Dr. King and Senator Kennedy? Will I grieve, or will I shed one tear and move on to language arts? Will Dad look up to see the sky and know that God’s plan for his life and his family is complete and that it is good?
If I lose my father in war and forever become a Gold Star daughter, from where shall my help come then?
Will I still believe in God?
Will I believe in anything?
(…to be continued…)
© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.