Exactly ten years ago today, I posted a thing on LiveJournal and exactly ten years before that, I posted a thing on Usenet, and today I’m posting a thing… on Tumblr, this time, mostly because it feels appropriate for the intervening years to be once again reflected in a change of venue, and because this time it feels like pictures are called for.
Both of those other times, I took the day off work to drive to the town of my youth and sit, for a while, beside a particular gravestone.
This time, it’s a Sunday, which should make it that much easier to take the day but, ironically, not so much. I’ll hopefully be making the journey later this week.
The grave is my father’s. Thirty years ago today, he was co-piloting a Wings West Beechcraft C99 in a short-hop flight from San Luis Obispo to SFO when, at an altitude a bit over 3000 feet, they struck a descending Rockwell Commander head-on. There were fifteen people on the Beechcraft and two on the Rockwell. An ambulance attendant on the scene after the accident said, “There was wreckage on top of hillsides and wreckage strewn over a real wide area.”
Unsurprisingly, I’ve never been to the crash site, although I don’t think it would be that difficult. Maybe someday, if I’m ever down San Luis Obispo way with some time.
Also unsurprisingly, it was a closed-casket funeral. That’s me - a month short of my fourteenth birthday - on the middle-right, with my uncles and cousins and a military honor guard.
You see, Dad was a career USAF officer and veteran of the air war over Vietnam with a Purple Heart. Survived a Hanoi SAM during Operation Linebacker II (his plane’s callsign was STRAW 02) and bailout behind enemy lines, finishes his twenty years at the peak of the Reagan/Andropov Cold War, and finally retires from the Armed Forces only to die behind the yoke of a civilian prop job.
I’m no Alanis Morrisette, but, well… you know. Don’tcha think?
At any rate, the entire life direction of almost-fourteen-year-old me (and my siblings and our mom, of course) is changed irrevocably in a few seconds and everything that my life is, that I am, today is only possible in the universe where that tragedy happened. Friends, schools, jobs, wives, children: all decidedly reserved for this timeline.
I think he’d really like my family. He’d like his daughter-in-law and he’d love his granddaughters. But he’d be in his mid-70s by now, so when I picture him running around playing goofy games, I have to remind myself that what I’m really envisioning is a memory - the way he would run around playing goofy games with his own children.
I’ve felt for some time - as I approached this milestone once again, this ten-year cycle in which I look back at the person I was ten years earlier, and speculate about the person I might be ten years from now - that today, what would be on my mind is the fact that my very final memories of my own father are of a man who was, effectively, my age. Three years from now, I will be older than he ever was. And the kind of father I have been, so far, is very consciously modeled on what kind of father I remember him being.
So it’s been hard not to feel, sometimes, like I’m a good dad because he was a good dad. And it’s been hard not to worry, sometimes, about the fact that my model for how to do it is now running out. What kind of advice could I, would I, have sought from him about parenting?
But now that the actual anniversary is here, I find these days that I’m not so worried about how I’m going to parent going forward. I have the best partner ever, the best kids ever, and I feel like we’re going to do just fine. (Hook goes here for the me of ten years from now to call back to.)
So really, what I find myself thinking about more of late are all the other things I wish I could talk to him about, all the non-parenting stuff.
Like, technology. He loved technology. I know he would have been all over iPods. One of my perpetual childhood memories is the image of him stretched out on the floor of the living room in front of the giant stereo cabinet, a pair of Aiwa headphones on, dozing to classical or folk music. If he could have taken the music that he loved with him everywhere, it would have been miraculous. Of course, almost nothing in his collection of vinyl ever made it to digital, not even to CD. But I’m sure he would have rigged up a system to record it all via USB. Would he have been into smartphones? Probably. Could I have convinced him to be a Mac user? We’ll never know.
Like, did he ever see any crazy shit in the sky with him? They say all veteran pilots do, eventually.
Like, career decisions. He retired a Major, which is a little lightweight for a career officer, but my understanding is that he wanted to stay close to the planes themselves and there wasn’t a promotional track to Lt. Colonel for him that didn’t take him further and further from the flight-line. It seems very likely that I’ll be at Apple as long as he was in the Air Force; no doubt he’d have much to say about the trade-off between what you want to do and what’s “best”.
Like, how did he remain so sane through the 70s when his post-Vietnam job was to be ready to get in a flying truck full of nuclear annihilation on a moment’s notice and take it over the pole to the Soviets, knowing that the place he took off from - the place where his family had been - wasn’t going to be there anymore by the time he was done? (At no point in my childhood did anyone ever tell us what to do in the event of a nuclear drill, because we lived on Strategic Air Command bases and there wasn’t anything we could do that would matter.)
Like, Vietnam itself. The other day, I was reading about the Linebacker II targets and it’s kinda nuts how well documented these things are. I not only know my dad’s call-sign; I know the approximate flight-path and what their target was: the Gia Lam rail yard. They completely flattened it before the SAM got them but it was rebuilt, of course.
I sometimes imagine traveling with him there, in Hanoi and in Guam and in Thailand. Peacetime tourists to a place he once unrelentingly blew the hell up. Revisiting the places he took hundreds of pictures of.
Or maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to go. Maybe he would have hated the very thought of it.
So here’s a thing that haunts me, sometimes: When he was killed, I was fourteen. I didn’t have opinions about shit yet; there wasn’t anything for us to be at odds about. I’ll never know what we might have had to agree to disagree about. Foreign policy? Gun control? Religion? The person I am today would certainly be at odds with the man he was in the 80s about these subjects but, of course, the person I am today doesn’t get to be in his universe. Maybe we’d have the same worldview about these things.
I just wish we could cross those streams, just for a day. He’d get out a guitar and I’d get out a flute and we’d play “Time In A Bottle”.
But, since we can’t do that, I’m going to take a day from work later this week and go sit under the tree by his gravestone and catch him up on the latest and ask him whatever’s on my mind and live with the fact that there are no answers coming.
So… thirty years. Twice as long out of my life as he was in it, but no less the towering influence for it, of course. Soon I’ll be older than him. Older than your own father, that’s a hell of a thing, right?
He knew what he wanted to do from a very early age, and he did it. He loved planes. He wanted to fly them, and he did exactly that - no matter what - literally to the very end.
I wish my siblings had as many, and as clear, memories of him as I do. As I got to have.
I can’t help but wonder what I’ll be like in another ten years, when I tackle another one of these. And wonder what he’d have been like in his fifties, his sixties, his seventies. That universe is closed to me; but… maybe it’s open to someone else, someone very different from me. If so, I hope they’re happy. I hope things worked out okay in that universe, too. I bet they did.
Love you, Dad. I’ll be by in a few days; sorry I’m a little late this time but, as I’m sure you know, adulthood gets dense. Next time around, I’ll let you know if being in your fifties is any easier.
I’m a sucker for hoods secured by buckles.
Happy 100th Birthday, Rite of Spring! I shall celebrate by dressing in my finest and taking its performance into my ears, then becoming so shocked and appalled that I spill rioting into the streets, whereupon I shall likely faint.
Rose window of Catholic chapel on Hart Island, New York City’s Potter’s Field, where over 800,000 bodies lie in mass graves.
Source: Antiquarian23 (reddit)
About 2000 more each year, in trenches, the work done by Rikers Island inmates. Former Nike missile base, too. For a little patch of clay in a bay there sure has been the potential for a lot of madness. Oh, forgot: women’s lunatic asylum for a while, too!
Bouncy Bubble Beverage, It’s The Mandatory Thing!
(Paranoia RPG cup by West End Games, provided to cons ca 1990.)
I would have killed for one of these back in the day.
I don’t even want to know which way is up.
B-36H crash site in Labrador, Canada
This, too, looks like nothing so much as a time machine tucked out of the way hoping nobody finds it until its loop comes around again.
Nuclear explosion photographed less than one millisecond after detonation
Superheated plasma shooting to the ground along the tower’s guidewires, a jellyfish of pure destruction reaching toward its prey.
We put forty-eight strawberry plants into raised beds for Mothers Day. Soon they will be joined by lots of borage.