Though I have written about places I travel while on business, my personal trips are usually in the company of my wife who was obviously absent during the past week (aside from commenting several times about my forthcoming week of harsh salad treatment). Anyway, I waited until now to let you readers in on the reason for my solo trip.
This had been planned a month or so ago to be a short, one full day trip to visit my son in PCB. Regulars may recall that not long ago, my wife’s brother passed away after a long illness, and at the time of planning the trip, she simply didn’t know if she would be in any mood or condition to join in on such an important event, thus she asked me to go alone.
On Wednesday, my son graduated from a rigorous Air Force course in Air Battle Management. Those are the guys who fly up on the AWACS and control the military aircraft over a battlespace. I was to fly in on Tuesday afternoon, attend the graduation on Wednesday and turn around and fly out on Thursday to return to San Antonio.
Less than a week before leaving, I received a call from my sister asking me if I could come down to Brandon this weekend to surprise my father for his 81st birthday. In the old days, I could have just called the airlines and changed my tickets and made it all work out. In the world of Expedia and Priceline and such; not so easy. I was left with the option of either flying back to San Antonio Thursday and getting back on a flight to Tampa Friday, or doing what I did – having my son drive down with me to Tampa and driving back to catch a flight. I simply ate the price of the original return flight from PCB to San Antonio – the alternative was to pay an adjustment of over $900. No thanks. Instead, I got a one way ticket from Ft Walton Beach (about 50 miles from PCB) to San Antonio for about $300. I know, it sucks but that’s life these days. By the way, if you know of a way that I can get lower priced tickets, please don’t taunt me with it. I may just cry like the little baby seated in 14B.
So the first part of this is the graduation. Both of our kids are in the military and we could not be any prouder of them. I knock on wood every time I say just how lucky Eva and I are to have the kids that we have, only because I’m sure many of you know people who, sometimes through no fault (or very little fault) of the parents, have kids that are little hellions. With each accomplishment, we pinch ourselves simply because we know that we are lucky to have raised some fine offspring.
I did not realize the extent of intricate training that goes into learning how to control aircraft, the massive stack, literally volumes of information that must be learned and retained and then the "get it" factor in performing the job he is being trained to do. Either you get it, or you don't, and many don't.
Thankfully, years of playing Nintendo and PlayStation actually did result in something positive. The school allowed students to take in family members to see the training facilities and I got to observe a class performing a training mission. My son took me into a room where he was able to bring up a screen showing the live (simulated) action and even though I have a fairly good understanding of how aircraft operations occur, it was impressive to observe. He had me put on the headphones to listen to the action, and it was unbelievable to hear multiple voices all talking over the various radio channels simultaneously. I asked him how everyone can know who is saying what and he told me that you just have to know what you are listening for. I think if I was a pilot, I'd pop in a CD of that Ride of the Valkyries and hope for the best.
The graduation ceremony was a typical military production with guest speaker, gifts to instructors, certificates presented and finally, the pinning on of the occupational badge.Afterward, we retreated to the "Heritage Room" (squadron bar) and enjoyed cake and refreshments.Though it would have been nice if Eva could have made the trip, I'm pretty sure I was proud enough for both of us.
Being in the military is more than just the service of doing a job, working long hours, lots of training and in many cases, going into harms way. For many people who have never had a family member serve, they have a limited idea formed around patriotic scenes of loved ones leaving to go overseas or the tears of joy when a unit returns to the cheers and hugs of happy family members. Very few people outside of the military fully understand the sacrifice that entire families make even if their soldier, sailor, marine or airman doesn't go off to war.
When my father served and during most of my military assignments, there was no Internet to send daily e-mails loaded with pictures or live video streaming for people to stay in touch. Hell, I knew of guys who amassed $500 a month phone bills just trying to hold a marriage together while serving a remote tour in Korea. And while our service members have a much easier time of staying in touch with loved ones thanks to cell phones and streaming video, nothing can replace actually being there in person.
When my father left for boot camp at the age of 17 he left home only to return a dozen or so times in the next 35 years or so before both of his parents would pass away. It wasn't a matter of not wanting to return, it was a matter of distance and economics. When a son or daughter chooses the military as a career, there is a very good possibility that when they retire, it will not be in the town they grew up in, and that was certainly true for my father, and it is the same for me.
As my parents get older, I am so very happy that I have numerous brothers and sisters who decided to live their lives in and around the town my parents retired in. And I am also happy that I have never been made to feel guilty for not moving back to Florida.
My only recollections of my father's mother are of a very confused woman. My grandmother had a stroke that resulted in the loss of her near term memory, but she seemed to have crystal clear recollection of everything prior to the most recent 15 years. She had been a school teacher and I vaguely remember talk of that, but mostly, during our handful of visits, she needed everyone to know that she lived at 22 Wilson Avenue, Rising Sun, MD. I think it is also pretty clear that my grandmother had no idea who I was, since she thought I was a little girl named Daisy. That will bolster a 10 year-old's ego.
Last year, my father suffered a stroke and though he has done very well in his recovery, there is no glossing over the fact that as people get older, they tend to forget stuff (hell, I'm only in my mid forties and it has started), and having a stroke only compounds this. Weekly phones calls that once lasted twenty minutes or so have become much shorter and generally center around generic familiar things like the weather or the fact that the Tampa Buccaneers are 0-5.
And now, some 28 or so years after leaving home to join the military, it is not such a pleasant thought to watch your father begin to fade via long distance phone call in the same way he had to watch his parents go - without being there.
My son and I pulled into Brandon Friday afternoon and had coordinated meeting my sister in the parking lot of my parents Condo community. So as not to catch my father off guard, my mom had been preparing him for a visitor and then when we arrived, she let him know it was my son and I coming to visit. It was only in May of this year that we visited last, and in that short time, things have changed. Time flies.
On Saturday, we took my parents to the big mall in Brandon and I was pleased to see that my dad can still move around with ease. My mother seems to have recovered fully from knee surgery earlier this year and the walking in the mall helped quite a bit. I have to be honest, when you walk with an older couple and they are your parents, you suddenly become cognizant of the fact that in general, most of us younger whipper-snappers are complete inconsiderate assholes. I have always felt like I was kind to older folks, but I have a renewed interest in being kind to the old fart at HEB blocking the aisle, the old man in a hat driving 12 miles an hour on the interstate (in the left lane) and in general, folks just trying to enjoy their retirement years at a slower pace. If I have honked at your grandmother as she has driven on Loop 410, I'd like to apologize.
Later that afternoon, we had the big party at my sister's home where the brothers and sisters that live nearby showed up, and my two sisters who live out of state joined us via Skype to sing Happy Birthday to my father. Can you imagine all the birthdays my father missed during his years traveling in the military (he missed my birthday for 6 years straight), if we had just had Skype or some such capability in the 1960's and '70's?
Before we left, he told me that he was glad that I came to visit. He confessed that he had no idea who my son was when we first showed up on Friday, but that the conversations and questions helped him remember quite a lot of stuff he had not thought of in a while.Screw the airlines; that's worth an extra $300.