Air Force Man
by Tim Ramsey
My father was an Air Force man for twenty years. He served his country faithfully - a country that proudly stands for freedom, hope, and peace. His dedication, combined with that of so many other men and women, preserved this great nation for many others to come, including his seven children... including me, his oldest son.
I was only three when Dad was stationed in Thule, Greenland. I had no idea where in the world that was, but I knew it would take him at least a year to get there, to do his job and to get back home again. He sent home several eight-by-ten glossy black and white photographs of magnificent icebergs which mom shared with us. I could feel the frigid air as I touched the prints with my grubby toddler fingers. I knew my dad was probably in need of a pretty heavy coat and gloves. A few years later, my siblings and I took turns taking those very photos to school and proudly shared them during show and tell time. Many additional grubby fingers felt the arctic chill of that forsaken land, and many other young minds formed images of my father’s service to his country.
Seven years later – now with seven children in his brood - Dad was sent to defend his country and the freedom of another far-off land, a place called South Viet Nam. His tour of duty took place in one of the deadliest years of the war, but my sisters, brothers and I had no idea of the real danger before him. He and my mother shielded us from the news of that distant locale and assured us that the family would be whole once again when he returned stateside. We waited and drove my Mom crazy, but also helped make care packages of Spam and Tang and other treats to send across the world. We created handmade pictures and cards and sent them his way. Those of us who knew how to write mailed letters as well.
Throughout his hot, muggy year at Phu Cat Air Base, dad and mom also exchanged many letters. In addition, they made good use of their “his and her” state-of-the-art portable reel-to-reel tape recorders. A box full of old tapes document that year quite well and preserve both young voices for their children. On a few of them, one can hear the southern voices of their innocent children as well.
I was a fourth-grader during dad’s year in Southeast Asia. My peers and I had no understanding of that world so far away from our little Virginia home. We only knew that our fathers were gone, and we were proud to state that they were protecting our freedom. In class, our teacher started each day standing at her chart stand, writing the little bits and pieces of news that each of us offered, and then we were required to copy the full contents to the paper on our desks. I remember clearly how, one morning, she wrote, “Timmy’s daddy is in Viet Nam. I know we will all keep him in our prayers.” Yes, we were allowed to pray in school back then.
After recording the news of the day, Miss Eldridge collected the coins that each of us had brought to school for purchasing war bonds. In return, we each received little stamps to place into a little book. It took a lot of nickels and dimes and an awfully long time to fill those books, but we eventually were awarded a $25 savings bond - money for a future we hoped we could share with our fathers…
I grew up to be a teacher and then, later in my career, a principal. My dad often told me how proud he was of me. I wish I had told him more often how proud I was of him.
My current school understands family. And community. And patriotism. These concepts are not often stressed in a world where the only things that seem to matter are those which can be tested and quantified. But they are valued at my school where it is definitely okay to say things during the morning classroom news review such as, “Timmy’s daddy is in Kuwait. I know we will all keep him in our prayers.”
Veterans Day is a big deal at my school. Weeks are spent preparing for the big day. The kids, teachers and parents take part in converting the campus into a sea of red, white and blue. Pictures of military members of each family are displayed throughout the building. A tremendous day is set aside for speeches, songs and guests sharing their stories throughout campus. Our celebration is so much more than an obligatory morning assembly. It is a day-long event with echoes of patriotism that ripple through the remaining six months of school.
My father attended our Veterans Day ceremony in 2003 as a guest of my daughter who was then just a little first grader. The best picture of that day for me is one in which he is standing with other vets - all smiling as they hold their grandchildren in their arms. Dad beamed that day, proud of his country and proud of those much younger than he who were taking time to also show their love for their country and for those who have defended it.
This will be the first Veterans Day without my Dad on this Earth. He died last December after a miserable war with the dementia that had invaded his mind, a war perhaps more frightening than that which he had witnessed nearly a half-century earlier in Viet Nam.
I went to his house a few days before the funeral to select the last outfit he would wear before being stationed in Heaven. As I searched through the clothing in his closet, I noticed a tiny, battered red and black name tag he had stuck to the outer edge of the top shelf. I looked closer and noticed that the sticker was the visitor pass my father had worn to the school that had dedicated a day of honor twelve years earlier to him and to other fine Americans just like him.
This week I will attend this year’s ceremony most likely with a lump in my throat. But I will also have a smile on my face and a heart filled with pride as I say a silent prayer of thanks for the Air Force man who was my dad.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2015.