Down Here on the Ground       The Family Front    63 - 73   When Fathers Fly Away

Back Then Part Two

Dad, Jim, and Brownie
Patuxeunt River, Maryland – 1956

By Jim – Reading Time: 10 minutes

We were getting accustomed to the San Francisco peninsula. After a couple of temporary crashes we found Brentwood Street neatly tucked away in Los Altos. Brownie had become ‘my dog’ since moving away from the Chesapeake. Jumping up on my rollaway bed or sleeping at my feet, his soulful brown eyes spoke volumes. He was part of the family and Dad had arranged for him to make the trip. Big, strong, loyal, and loving – he was a great neighborhood partner and home companion. Even so, Bownie was a country dog and accustomed to wide open spaces and plenty of exercise.

One thing we did not account for was the density of homes and people (even in the fifties) where we would live in California. There was no way to anticipate the dilemma, but it quickly became clear, even with a fenced-in back yard, that the dog was less playful and becoming lethargic. Dad and I made a decision that we would let Brownie roam free at night. We knew it was risky – but for the next year he was as happy as ever, curling up on the front porch when he returned from his romp in the night air. He (and we) paid the price when one night he was hit and killed by a car – but that was the chance we took.

Over a decade later, Mom would take a course in writing. I was surprised she remembered – but when asked by the instructor to write about something that conjured sorrow, Mom wrote* about how we had gone out looking for him, even though it was a school morning. She drove slowly and there he was on the berm – he’d been hit hard on a busy road. I knelt down and felt that he was cold but hugged him, anyway. He was so still. A very kind policeman arranged to have him taken away. Mom wondered if I wanted to stay home from school, but in the end I knew we had loved Brownie as best we could for as long as he’d lived – and dutifully departed for school.

* A copy of Mom’s writing is appended to this entry. Her instructor was enthusiastic – but his notes are hard to read.

Six months later we moved into half a quonset hut adjacent the main gate at Alameda Naval Air Station. Alameda was 45 miles north where the aircraft carriers docked. Between demands for flying time and shipboard duties it was closer to Dad’s work and we had more time together than we would otherwise. Mom was still in graduate school and I was still enrolled – so for the remaining months of Dad’s duty on the USS Midway, we would drive about an hour each way – passing the bay and over the Dumbarton Bridge – making our way to familiar territory in the short term.

Navy kids are pretty much outsiders, even in a Navy town. When you go to a different public school every year or two, you learn to size things up, figure out the players, and fit in where you can. I was doing just that in Mrs. Key’s third grade classroom at Loyola Elementary School when we were asked to do something different. “For ‘art class’ over the next two weeks, boys and girls, we’re going to draw and illustrate the front of the house we live in, draw the floor plan on the back, and write about ‘Where We Live.’” Paper was distributed as were our shared crayons for the illustration.

Spreading the large piece of white construction paper lengthwise, I took the green crayon, and drew a clean, green 180-degree arc across the length of the sheet. I then added two windows, one door in the middle and a little sign that said 467-B, our ‘street address.’ (Over eighty quonset huts dotted the field.) Flipping the paper over I sketched the very simple floor plan – doorway entry, two bedrooms on the right, sitting area, kitchenette, and bathroom on the left. Period. 600 square feet. No muss, no fuss. Assignment completed.

This was not what Mrs. Key had in mind.

When she saw me dawdling, she came over to inquire. “Is this your house, Jimmy?”

“Yes ma’am – I live in a Quonset hut outside the main gate at Alameda. Well, actually half a Quonset Hut. The captain is the only one who gets a whole Quonset hut …” I shrugged it off as the other kids started to look over. No problem with Mrs. Key, though…we worked it out.

Then came the questionnaire. Name, Address, Mother, Father, Brothers, Sisters, Father’s Occupation. Hmmm. That one was always tough for the other kids to understand. I just wrote in ‘U.S. Navy.’ I stared up at that finished bulletin board for over a month. I thought it was o.k. to be different but I wanted it to say more. The other Dads were shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, drivers, laborers, or managers. ‘U.S. Navy’ didn’t quite make it. Years later – with the benefit of hindsight and evolving vocabulary – I realized that what I wanted to write was something like:

‘With blatant disregard for personal safety, my father sails around the world on the largest ships ever built by humankind. He flies jets higher, faster, harder, and further in every parcel of atmosphere he can reach. His job is to stick a poker in the eye of the enemies of freedom and to rain fire on tyrants and their armies.

Your Dad makes a nice living.

My Dad makes the world safe for democracy.

Your family enjoys the illusion of security.

Our family knows there is no such thing.

Stick that up on the bulletin board.

Why should I feel like an outsider?’

Actually, at that point I was still unsure about the lethal aspects of Dad’s work – but that information would come soon enough. The Navy took him away for long periods of time – but when I was nine years old, his next set of ‘orders’ seemed too good to be true. At that point, the Navy assigned Dad to two years of graduate study for a master’s degree at Stanford. It actually took me a period of days to understand what that would mean. He was home most nights, home when I got up to go to school, home when we had supper. It was incredible.


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