Thursday, May 29, 2008

Air Force Aunt

The United States Air Force made it possible for me to come into the world. I know, it sounds like a bit of a stretch, but for the most part, it’s true. I was born in 1963 to a USAF navigator, Thomas Joseph, who perished in a B-47 aircraft over South Central Minnesota during a Cold War training exercise 7 months earlier. He had just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Two days later, while coming out of LABS maneuver, in a twist of fate that would change the lives of four families, a piece of the engine’s turbine wheel broke off and sliced off the wing of the aircraft, putting the plane into a unfortunate spiral which jettisoned the crew into the fields of Comfrey Minnesota, a small farming community in Brown County.

Forty five years later I’ve come to know that the most important people in my father’s life were people he met in basic training and the navigator cadet programs in Texas; men who came from all over the United States to serve their country and start their careers during uncertain times. Not much has changed since the 60’s given that our military is still very much on alert and war is still part of our National experience. As much as these men are all now retired, they’ve adopted me as ‘Air Force Uncles’ and I get a greater sense of who my father was because of them.

Tomorrow morning, my 20 year old nephew, Joseph Paull, will graduate from Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base and begin his new journey. Over the last six weeks he changed from a boy to a man. Anyone who has been through what he has experienced knows this. You go to ‘boot camp’ or ‘Basic’ idealizing certain things, scared, confused about what is about to happen to you and when the finish line approaches, you can hardly believe what has happened to you emotionally, physically and spiritually. I got a call from him last week, an unexpected surprise for me. He has been on my mind a lot these two months, recalling stories that my air force uncles told me about what it meant to get through this process, I would think about Joe and what he was going through. His voice on the other end of the phone was different…amazed at how much he had changed, who he is becoming. I get it. I’ve never been so proud. It’s hard to convey pride over the phone. I just know that this journey he is taking is not easy. It’s damn hard. Although Lackland AFB's motto boasts that it begins with them. “Where the 'Blue' really begins", is in the heart. So in rejoicing over this accomplishment, I am flying to San Antonio today so that I can be at Lackland Air Force Base tomorrow. I can’t be anywhere else. As Joe’s Godmother, I’ve prayed for him as much as I’ve prayed for our kids. My air force uncles, in recalling these important milestones to me, talked about graduation and what it meant to have the support of family and friends, as they took these next steps forward. The path involves commitment and sacrifice; something only military men and women understand. As Joe’s circles tighten up, with the type of specialized training he will receive as he moves onward and upward into the USAF family, I hope he knows how much those of us outside the circle admire and appreciate his sense of duty and service to his country.

I am an Air Force daughter who has become a proud Air Force aunt. For this rite of passage, I will need to check at the airport, a cargo bag loaded with Kleenex , to see me through the ceremonials tomorrow, knowing that 48-years ago at Harlingen, Texas, a young airman with a red Buick; one I never had the privilege to know, led the graduation march of his aviator cadet class at his own commencement. There’s not much that has changed in 48 years. Both of these men who share the same name Joseph, have both shared hope for a peaceful future while looking toward the promise of opportunity. I pray that one will watch over the other, and that God will keep His keen eye on Joe as he moves forward. Protect him from enemies both seen and unseen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Make way for ducklings

For some reason driving lessons came to me this week and what it was like learning to drive a car. Coincidently, my 17 year old is doing the same. We are two different beasts, or maybe not. I am trying to relax and enjoy the ride; after all I am paying a fortune for the gas.
A man, I can only call “Mr. Sweating” was my “behind the wheel” instructor in high school. He was a nervous sort. If memory serves me right, my friends, Lisa and Scott piled into the car with me; back then we did everything in groups of 3-4. I think Mr. S was a P.E. teacher who was forced at gunpoint to teach driver’s education. He reluctantly went over all the features of the car much in the way one would revel in eating earthworms for breakfast. The only thing on my mind was getting the steering wheel of that government issue car in my hot little hands and thinking as a side note “the brake is there in the middle… what a peach…ok, I can do this.” As we hummed along a little winding back road in Petaluma (turning left from Corona Road to Adobe Road, I picked up a little speed). I could hear Scott whispering to Lisa in the back seat that I was driving too slow or words to that effect. I hit the gas, imagining in my mind’s eye flying over the next hump in the road. I looked over to Mr. Sweating. He was wincing and shifting in his seat with his foot positioned like a hovercraft over the instructor brake . “You can let up a little” he shouted as we approached a bluff in the horizon. Scott and Lisa stopped giggling. A mama quail appeared on the road in front of us with 13,000 baby quail behind her and my first reaction was to hit the brake as hard as I could, sending the car into several dove tails and swerving motions that put us on all points of Old Adobe Road, luckily with no traffic behind us or coming from the other side of the road, I ended up on the side of the road or therebouts. Mr. Sweating exited the car stomping his feet, demanding that I get out of the car into the back seat. With the veins in his neck standing promptly at attention, he shouted in his best boot camp voice “NEVER….ever….NEVER….brake for animals while driving a car!!!” After that incident, although totally humiliated in front of my friends, I eventually passed my driver’s test. Secretly, I rejoiced that I had not massacred the quail family that day on Old Adobe Road.
Shannon is a much more conscientious driver than her mom. So I try not to hyperventilate as she talks her way through whatever route she is driving. More worried about others than herself, she wonders if she is driving too fast or too slow. I try to keep my comments to minimum, knowing how considerate she is, advising her that the honks and shouts of others mean nothing when it comes to driving safely. Last Friday, in a twist of fate, that delivered me promptly back to 1978, I was driving us all home on Bass Lake Road when the kids and I spotted a lovely young turkey Mom and 4,000 little turkeys trailing behind her as they made their way across the road. Slowing down, we laughed at them as they entered the grassy area when not 50 feet away, a mama duck and eight little tiny ducklings were also doing the same thing. Forgetting Mr. Sweating…and coming to full stop in Bass Lake Road. I put on my flashers and told my kids to stay put. I stopped the car coming from the opposite direction and shooed the whole family across the road (with one little guy overturning on his back, but eventually making it to the other side). In the spirit of Robert McClosky, I secretly looked up to heaven and told Mr. Sweating that if it was safe to do so, I would always and forever, make way for ducklings.
Tammy Maher is a biweekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat. You can reach her on the web at