Growing Up in a Town Without Dads

Snapshots of life at home.
June 13 2013 12:53 PM

A Town Without Dads

Our fathers were American heroes, but they were never around.

(Continued from Page 2)

I was given two more tries. I died the second time and was a probable quadriplegic the third. The helmet came off. I noticed sweat pouring from my earlobes, a malady I previously associated with habitual cocaine use.

I was led into another room. I climbed a ladder and was strapped into a mock cockpit. An instructor strapped me in with a canvas seat belt.

“This is going to test your ejection skills.”

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“What ejection skills?”

My heart thumped through the apparatus. The instructor let out a shout—“OK, RELEASE!” —before my body was thrown backward at 150 mph. The cockpit shuddered before settling. At this precise moment, I had a thought: The dudes in the squadron are punking me! These are grown men who had been known to wait for hours so they could pour a garbage can of ice water on a friend while he sits on the toilet on the carrier. It was quite possible they had arranged an elaborate practical joke and everyone here was in on it.

They weren’t. A humiliating compromise was made: I would spend a week doing special-needs swimming to see if I could get up to par. I headed back to the base that evening. I had thought it would be cool to stay in the Bachelor Officers Quarters while preparing for my flight. The BOQ was where my family spent the first three weeks on Whidbey while we waited for our house to be finished. The building was essentially unchanged from 1974; it had the same squat three-story Warsaw Pact–era design, the only addition being televisions in each of the rooms. The place was designed to depress you so much that you would find your own place pronto.

I wandered these same halls when I was 7. One night I found myself lost, frantically trying random doorknobs until one opened. It was a young aviator, his flight suit draped over a chair. He was wearing nothing but his white T-shirt and briefs. He asked my name and then called down to the front desk. He asked for Peter Rodrick’s room number but told the operator not to ring through.

He took me by the hand and led me back home. The pilot opened my family’s room door and lifted me into my single bed next to my sister. My parents slept a few feet away. He held his hand to his face in the universal shush signal.

“It will be OK—just go to sleep.”

I repeated the pilot’s line to myself now: It will be OK—just go to sleep. But I couldn’t. From my third-floor room, I had an unobstructed view of the chapel where my father’s memorial service had been held. I lay on my bed for a while, calculating the minutes until I had to be back in the water, just as I used to count down with dread the minutes until baseball practice as a boy.

I couldn’t sleep, so I headed over to the base McDonald’s and self-medicated with grease. I drove over to the chapel and pulled into the exact parking space that we had parked our Buick station wagon on the morning of my father’s memorial service. It was where my family sat paralyzed afterward. I looked out my window and could see Laddie Coburn, my Dad’s best friend, standing there, telling my mother she could start a whole new life. And I saw my mother there, just whispering, “No.”

I stared at the taillights of Prowlers circling the base in the midsummer night. And I said over and over again, I am not trying to be my father, I am not trying to be my father. I’m not sure if I was saying it with pride or shame. 

***

I did eventually pass the swim qual. The morning of my flight—a low-level training mission through the Cascades—I woke up and slid into my borrowed flight suit. I had an overwhelming fear: I was going to crap myself at 24,000 feet and four G’s. It happens to pilots. I’d heard tales of aviators returning from a long flight, stepping out of the cockpit, stripping naked, and throwing their soiled flight suit into the ocean. So I drove over to the drugstore, paced a bit, and finally picked up a four-pack of Depends and carried them weakly to the counter.

“For my grandfather.”

The counter woman said nothing. I quickly threw the Depends into my backpack, jumped into my car, and headed up to Whidbey. I turned off my iPod as I crossed over Deception Pass Bridge and switched over to the CBC station broadcasting from Victoria, in British Columbia; the drone of the always pleasant, inoffensive Canadian voices usually settled me down. But not today. My heart was pounding. I parked my car across the street from the squadron’s hangar and went over to Prowler Memorial Park, where the names of all the men and women killed flying the EA-6B were engraved underneath a decommissioned Prowler. I stopped and put my hands on my father’s etched name.

And then I started laughing. It was a moment of odd clarity: I was not going to fly in Dad’s plane wearing a diaper. I tossed the Depends into my trunk and headed in.

The flight? It was a blast, even if I did boot a spectacular yellow fluid while upside down near Mt. Rainier. The pilot needed to work on his touch-and-go landings after our mission, so we circled Oak Harbor a few times. I could see my old elementary school—the one where Timmy told me about his dad's accident. And I could see the chapel where my dad's memorial service was held. But neither really registered. From 3,000 feet up, they looked like just another school, just another church in just another town.

Stephen Rodrick is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Men’s Journal. This essay is adapted from The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life published by Harpers. For more information: themagicalstranger.com

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