“I can’t wait to see you, Daddy!” I said into the telephone.
My father, calling from Hawaii replied, “What are you going to do instead?”
Dad had been deployed with the Navy for nearly a year while my sister, my brother, my mom, and I stayed on base in San Diego, finishing another year of school, losing teeth, learning to walk, taking cover during earthquakes, and writing lots of letters. He went on cruise every other year for six to ten months.
A phone call was a rare treat while he was on cruise. In those pre-email days, our only contact with my dad throughout most of the cruise was through letters and postcards. My mother wrote my dad every night. I wrote him less often than that.
On base, our mail wasn’t delivered to our house. Instead we had to stop by the base post office each day. I loved putting the little key into the keyhole and opening the little door to see what we got. Sometimes there would be a little card inside which meant that we had a package waiting. Then we’d have to wait in line to collect what we’d gotten from the person behind the counter.
Often, we’d stop to check mail on our way home from some other excursion and my little brother or sister would be asleep in the car. After I turned ten and got my own military I.D., my mom would sometimes send me in to collect the mail, but most times, I’d get to wait in the car with my sleeping siblings while my mom went in and collected the mail.
I used this time to look at the liner notes of whatever cassette tape we were listening to. Julian Lennon was a favorite. Hall and Oates. Phil Collins. Michael Jackson. The Pointer Sisters. Air Supply. Cat Stevens. Jim Croce.
At home we would read whatever Dad had sent us, my mom helping us decipher his handwriting as necessary. I hoped to locate some of those letters for this post, but I can’t seem to find them (I think they’re still in my mom’s attic), so I’m relying on my memory to tell me what was in them.
I remember a letter about how they handled cockroaches on board ship by putting out baking soda. My dad said that the roaches had a sweet tooth—or rather a “base mandible”—for baking soda, and when they’d eat it, it would create gas in their digestive system, and they’d explode.
Another time, I’d become fixated on the Black Death and had written to my dad about all I was learning about rats and fleas and bubonic plague in medieval Europe. He responded with a postcard of plaster casts of bodies in Pompeii, where he’d just toured.
We only ever had a vague idea of where they were or where they were going, but we were allowed to know where they’d been. I’d trace their progress on our globe: the French Riviera, Pompeii, the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka (which I remember because the change in name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka was the topic of one of my dad’s letters), the Philippines, Guam.
When I got to missing him, I would look through my dad’s photos from his first deployment trying to get a sense for what his life was like living on a giant floating city. My mom explained that in those photos, he was on an oil-powered carrier and this cruise he was on a nuclear-powered carrier. She made jokes about how his clothes smelled like oil when he came home from that deployment and how they would glow when he got home from this one. I tried to reconcile a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with what we’d learned in school about the recent Chernobyl disaster, and ended up picturing metal floors littered with the radioactive corpses of exploded cockroaches.
None of it ever made sense.
But I knew the rhythms of the cruise from the shore side of things, and I knew that a phone call from Hawaii meant that very soon, the squadron families would be gathering for the fly-in. The women and children would dress up and wait on the tarmac, watching the F-14’s fly in from the carrier and land. We watched as the husbands and fathers opened the canopies, shouldered their duffle bags, and jogged out to meet us.
There was always an archway festooned with balloons and crepe paper for photo ops. But in every photo, we’re all hugging so hard, we’re just a mass of arms and legs.
Written as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop topic, “the mail.”