My dad and I aren’t close. There’s no big reason for this, we just don’t have much to say to each other. I grew up in southern Illinois living with my single mom, with Dad five minutes away in the same town. I stayed at his house every other weekend. It was fun — I had a sleeping bag there and would eat cheese curls and hot dogs on the floor in front of the TV. My dad is mellow and good-natured. A guy who likes to tell long jokes with big setups, he covers his mouth when he laughs because he’s self-conscious about his teeth. One of my California friends met him and exclaimed, “Aw, your dad is so salt-of-the-earth!,” which I’m pretty sure is code for something condescending, but I let it slide. Behind Dad’s Midwestern, BBQ-grillin’, simple-folk affect, he’s a still-waters-run-deep kind of a guy — that’s probably where the beer comes in.
When I was a kid, weekends with my dad tended to involve me going to dive bars and bowling alleys. I was provided with bottomless orange sodas and an ample supply of quarters to play pinball, video poker, and the claw machine. This mostly occupied me while Dad watched baseball and shot the shit with the other day-drinkers. I mastered that claw machine — in retrospect, it’s telling that the American Legion Post 214 in Bethalto, Illinois, had installed a machine full of stuffed animals. In Southern California, taking your little girl to a bar as a weekend activity would be frowned upon. In the amount of time I’d spend in bars on any given Saturday, a California kid would be late for two practices, a play date, and a mani-pedi. You hear the phrase “helicopter parents” a lot. I was more free-range.
“Daaaaaddddddd...can we go now?”
“After I drink this beer.”
But he’d always have another one. He wasn’t trying to hide it, and he’d give me another handful of quarters to get me off his case. Deal.
I don’t mean to tell you this in that sad-music, lonely, ignored-child-of-an-alcoholic way. Hanging out at the bar was boring, but the drinking didn’t bother me — it just was. I had other adults and family members around, so I wasn’t depending on my father alone for guidance. He was my dad, he was nice to me, and he just happened to be drinking beer all the time.
Sometimes I’d bring him a beer. I’d try to pop open the aluminum tab. It looked so easy when he did it — k-chhk! fizz — but my little fingers ended up twisting it off. No big deal. He’d get a can opener to make a hole in the top. He never got mad at me. I can see him sitting late at night in the flashing blue glow of the TV screen, a can in one of his many beer cozies balanced on the faux-wood TV-tray next to his plate of leftovers. He’d drink one beer after another, and long after I was asleep, he was up laughing at Three Stooges episodes. He’d probably seen every one of those shows 20 times before, and he still watches them today. And still laughs hysterically at them. I’ve never understood what was funny about the Three Stooges.
The Big Picture
A few years ago (I was 29 at the time) I was in Illinois, visiting for the holidays. By that time, I’d lived away from home for over ten years. I’d joined the Air Force right out of high school; after that, I took my GI Bill to college. In San Diego, I’d been working as a graphic designer for two years and had already become unused to the nosehair-freezing Midwestern winter.
After an evening hanging at the bar with my dad and various of my half-siblings and their spouses, we moved the party back to Dad’s house. I was sitting on the couch with my Coors Light when I noticed a large photo of me on the living room wall. It was my Air Force portrait — the one they make you take at the end of basic training. You’ve seen them: the baby-faced deer-in-headlights pose in uniform with a flag background. This was not when I looked my best. It was after weeks of being yelled at and herded like cattle, me screaming. “Sir, Airman Mitchell reports as ordered!” before everything that I said. Days consisted of folding socks and shirts into impossibly perfect stacks of sock-and-shirt bricks and cleaning lots of things that were already clean. There’s not much time to think or talk or be a human being — you’re just going through the motions, trying not to get yelled at. The photos are taken quickly. Single-file lines, no talking. I was 18, and my cheeks were chubby. Even through boot camp, though, I managed to maintain impressively over-plucked eyebrows.
Even after weeks of being yelled at and herded like cattle, I managed to maintain impressively over-plucked eyebrows for my Air Force portrait.
Past-me staring back at present-me looked very serious, and very young — standing nearly eyebrowless in my blue uniform with the American flag draped behind me. It wasn’t my favorite photo. It represented a phase in my life I hadn’t quite dealt with yet.
The military years were not great for me, mostly, I assume, because of issues everyone faces in early adulthood:
What am I good at? Am I good at anything?
I am not happy doing this, and I don’t know why.
I can’t help that it sounds sarcastic when I call you, “Sir.”
Why am I wearing camouflage and combat boots in an office?
There were no other photos of me on my dad’s living room wall, no signs of my existence anywhere else. I pointed to the picture and said, “Come on, Dad, why that photo? Don’t you have any better ones? Something cuter?” I was thinking maybe a freckle-faced grade-school shot, or even one of my baby pictures, with the fake Kmart outdoor background that has over the years turned orange. Something nostalgic, or at least cute. This photo wasn’t old enough to be nostalgic. It wasn’t cute, and it certainly wasn’t representative of what I was doing then. It made me uncomfortable.
I believed I had overcome being that girl. I’d gone to college, for Christ’s sake, the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree. I’d moved to California and started a career doing what I love. The Air Force version of me was just a kid with no guidance, not knowing what the hell to do. Plus, that photo made it look like I was this good little soldier patriotically serving her country. Even at the time, that made me feel like a poseur.
Here’s how I served you, my countrymen. You can thank me later.
At Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, I worked in an office with more than 40 people with a workload that 20 could handle. We were told, “Perception is everything,” which meant: “Just make it look like you’re working, even if you aren’t. Then you won’t get in trouble, and more importantly, we won’t get in trouble if an officer walks in and sees you fucking around.” It was then that I learned that I can pretend the shit out of working. All day long, even. I excel at it. So whenever I’d stop by Walmart after work in uniform and a well-meaning stranger would come up and say, “Thank you,” I always wanted to thank that person back. Thank you for your tax dollars, nice lady. I will now use them to go on a shopping spree.
When I was “Airman Mitchell,” I sat at a desk. I had a cubicle. There was a coffeemaker. There was a snack closet. Every day a guy I had a crush on would flirt with me by getting me a Moon Pie from the snack closet. I’d made the mistake of not telling him from the first that I hated Moon Pies and so I slowly accumulated a drawer full of them.
I never went overseas. I never did anything remotely dangerous. I did shoot an M16 at a piece of paper a few times. I did have a perfect uniform: shiny boots, sleeves crisp and creased, my hair slicked back like a seal — if seals had hair. I had a bun any sexy librarian would covet. I was quiet. Quietly judging.
Once, a new guy was sent to the squadron where I worked. I can’t remember his name now, but I referred to him then as “Captain Fetushead.” Captain Fetushead was young, doughy, pale, and blonde — with a certain flatness to the back of his head and closely cropped hair through which one could see his pink scalp. He was really excited about his new job and about all the ideas he had to improve the way things operated. As if that weren’t annoying enough, he singled me out, focusing on me as a “project.” Because I was quiet, he’d decided that I was shy and meek — neither was true — and that he could fix this perceived problem.
On Saturdays, Dad wouid drink and I’d play at the American Legion Post.
“We’re gonna bring you out of your shell, HAHAHA! People can’t be shy when I’m around, HAHAHA!”
He was one of those people who laughed after everything he said. (By the way, if you do that, you should stop.) By then, I had learned to control the impulse to roll my eyes or to say what was on my mind. In military world, I could get in big, big trouble for calling an officer a giant douchebag tool from hell.
Captain Fetushead’s plan to give me a personality makeover was to un-shy me via indoor volleyball. As an office, we went to the gym a few times a week for our PT (physical training), and Fetushead decided we’d play a version of volleyball wherein I was the captain of my team. If my team made a point, I had to switch one of my weak players with a strong player from the other side. This is some officer training school leadership bullshit, and I had zero problems and no guilt doing it. Alas, it did nothing to fix my personality. What Fetushead didn’t realize was that you don’t have to be loud and obnoxious to be a leader; smart and decisive work fine.
In my Air Force life, I did what I had to do, but nothing more. I didn’t sacrifice much, aside from some of my youth and a chunk of my soul, which was crushed daily by guys in crewcuts who walked around yelling “Hooah!” in an office full of semi-obese, balding computer programmers in combat boots. I was the only girl programmer where I worked for most of the years I was Airman Mitchell. Considering that I was young, unmarried, not a closeted lesbian, and didn’t look like a gargoyle — well, I might as well have been a baby panda — you know, ’cause they’re rare. It was hard to blend in, but not hard to get away with things others could not. I got more than a little special treatment, mostly because of preconceptions that I was weaker, stupider, and more incompetent than the boys. Oh, and because I put out. Sorry, feminism.
The main reason I’d signed up for military service was so people would get off my back. When you’re a senior in high school, everyone’s always asking you what your plan is. The ideal answer is, “I’m going to college! I’ve chosen a major! I’ve won scholarships and am well on my way to becoming a productive member of society!”
I certainly wasn’t planning on any of those things, but at least I had an answer. “Yes, it’s true, family. I am almost failing out of high school because I never go and am completely disinterested in it, and I have no real direction in life, no future to speak of, but ooh…look…I’m joining the military! See? You like that! America!!” Now leave me alone.
The bar for intelligence at enlistment is set so low that my scores (as a failing high-school student) on the ASVAB were perfect and allowed me my pick of career fields. Those career fields had long names that make them sound important and military-ish. I vacillated between Space Systems Operations (because it had the word “space” in it, and space is awesome) and the recruiter’s recommendation of Communications Computer Systems Programmer, for which I’d have to take an additional logic test. I chose the latter because it seemed more exclusive and brainy. Like a cool Vulcan club. (I still cite this logic test as proof that I’m a rational, clear-thinking person, even if I’m crying uncontrollably. Hey — show of hands: Who has qualified as a logical thinker by the Department of Defense? That’s what I thought.)
So, sorry, Dad. Enlisting had nothing to do with patriotism or virtue. It usually doesn’t for those who enlist at 18 — at least not initially. Because there is a gold-encrusted cornucopia stuffed with incentives to join. Housing allowances, sustenance allowances, uniform allowances, free medical and dental care for you and your spouse and all your kids, your base pay (which increases with inflation every year), promotions and time-in-service pay upgrades, hazardous-duty pay, temporary duty per-diem pay, nearly free college classes (many offered on the base), free training, reenlistment bonuses, dependent pay (extra money if you have a spouse, more if you have kids — and the pay increases with each rugrat you squeeze out), and military discounts everywhere. Because, hey, I shouldn’t have to pay full price — I have these boots on! And while you’re at it, how’s about I don’t have to wait in this line either. No, no... thank you.
But then there are the real soldiers. Not the computer nerds I worked with, who are nice guys, by the way, but come on... I mean the guys who actually get shot at, who poop in bathrooms with no doors. They leave their babies at home and come back to them when the children are a foot taller. They deal with psychological situations that contradict everything they’ve ever known to be right and good, and then, somehow, integrate back into normal society with wusses like me.
The photo on my dad’s wall makes me feel like apologizing to every real soldier for its very existence, misrepresenting their sacrifice.
This and “THAT”
My dad was not amused by my dismissal of the photo’s importance. He looked at me as if he couldn’t believe I’d suggest it was less than a monument. He stared for a long moment, taking it in. So did I. I’d never realized that the flag behind me wasn’t real. It was a picture of a flag. It was a picture of a picture of a flag.
He pointed to this emblem of American pride and eyebrow-plucking and announced, “Now THAT [he moved his pointy finger back and then forward again, for emphasis] I’m proud of.”
Sigh. A nonobservant person — or maybe even you — might say, “Hey, he’s proud of you. What’s wrong with that? Stop whining. I hate you!”
Let me break it down.
“Now THAT I’m proud of.”
Let’s try this particular word usage and emphasis out in other sentences.
“Now THAT car [points to a car that isn’t yours] wouldn’t make you look like you’re having a midlife crisis.”
“Now THAT [points to an opened present from someone else, sitting next to an opened one from you] is a good birthday gift.”
“Now THAT baby [points to one of your twins, pausing for effect] is cute.”
Had I otherwise led a life of crime or drug-addled downward spiraling? Hadn’t I accomplished more difficult, and therefore praiseworthy, things since? Ten years have passed since that photo was taken, during which time I figured out what I was good at, set a goal, went to college, excelled, and graduated, moved halfway across the country, lived by the ocean, and landed a great job. I was at least attempting to live my dreams. Isn’t that what you want for your kids? And isn’t it the ultimate pride-inducing circumstance? May I also point out that I did not accidentally have a baby that caused me to drop out of school or get married to someone I shouldn’t have? This is another distinction in my family. But I guess it isn’t on the pride radar.
The problem here is that my dad was proud of an idea of me. He was proud of that photo. Not anything I’d done or achieved or believed. Worse, that pride felt like it cancelled out the very real things he could be proud of me for. He hangs flaggy girl prominently and thinks she communicates something important about me — or maybe about him. And THAT is what bothered me.
Later in the evening, I wandered through his house, taking in all the new accumulation of collectibles. Sports and Three Stooges memorabilia. His collection of bowling balls. Yes, my dad has a bowling-ball rack. In his living room. His house is like a small museum, with decades of birthday and Christmas gifts and mementos relating to all his favorite baseball teams, NASCAR drivers, and beers. Collectibles and trinkets cover every flat surface. It’s neat and fairly organized. It’s actually pretty awesome. I peeked into his bedroom. Something shiny caught my eye. A string of rosary beads was draped over a full-length mirror. Hmm, that’s interesting, I thought. I then asked the obvious.
“Dad, what’s with the rosary beads?”
Yes, my dad has a bowling-ball rack. In his living room.
It was then, and right then, and only then, and never before then — that he told me he was Catholic. Just like that. In a Didn’t you know? sort of way.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve always been Catholic.”
What?!? How is this the first mention of it in my entire life? I’m 29 years old, and you’ve always been Catholic? A God-fearing rosary-bead-owning boy. My dad. You’d think it might come up.
But, no. I could tell he was thinking that this revelation should not be a big deal, which made it an even bigger deal to me.
Actually, it’s not all that surprising that he wouldn’t mention it. My dad is one of those classic, emotionally distant, tuned-out males who spend their lives drinking, working long hours, and/or tinkering in a shed somewhere to avoid…whatever it is they’re avoiding. But still...Catholic?
Having a conversation about religion late at night after many beers was probably not the best platform for a father-daughter heart-to-heart, but I couldn’t help myself. “Okay, so you’re Catholic — what about you is Catholic? Besides those beads? What do you do that adheres to the religion? What do you practice or believe? Do you pray?” Yes, of course he prayed, he told me. He believed in God. It’s possible that this was the extent of what his apparent lifelong religion has meant to him. I didn’t even know he had an opinion on God.
I think my questions, or maybe the smug, judgmental tone of them, started pissing him off. He shot back with questions to me. He asked if I believed in God. I told him I didn’t, but that I don’t have all the answers. He became angry. I’m not sure if I remember him ever being angry with me before, but he was angry now, because he believed in God and I didn’t. Again, this seems like a conversation you’d have with your child before age 29, but whatevs. I asked him, “Um, have you ever met my mother?”
My mom is a staunch atheist, though these days she claims to be agnostic. She has always loudly denounced all organized religion as something “for weak people.” She herself is the opposite of weak. She rides a motorcycle and was a police officer for 25 years. The first female cop in our town. She was the D.A.R.E. officer in my school district, which meant that, when I was in fifth grade, my mom came once a week to teach us about drugs and self-esteem. When she and my dad were together, she once hit him over the head with a telephone receiver, knocking him unconscious. His head was bleeding; she thought she’d killed him. Another time, she tried to run him over with her car, but once again failing to do him in.
Anyone who dared mess with her, or me, or anyone she deemed worth protecting, would (and still will) face her wrath. She’d never allow anyone — even God — to tell her how to live her life. Suffice to say, we did not go to church. I was never indoctrinated into anything I later had to deal with or change my mind about. I’ve never ever, even once in my life, been religious. When I was little, I believed in God and Jesus in the same way I believed in Santa, though for obvious reasons, I was more emotionally attached to Santa.
One summer, when I was nine, my cousin invited me to go to church camp with her. From then on, one week a year — and only one — I’d voluntarily go to Brush Creek in Xenia, Illinois, to be surrounded by good, churchy kids and their good, churchy camp-counselor counterparts.
Camp helped make me a more tolerant person, but it didn’t make me a believer. I was mostly there to giggle and have unrequited crushes on boys. After a couple of years of trying to fit in at camp, I looked around: I saw the singing and praising, the lifting of hands, that unburdening high people get when they are spiritually present, and I realized…nope. I have never felt what those people were feeling. It’s illogical to me. But I returned to camp for the next seven years. Some of my favorite memories and growing experiences stem from those summer churchy people.
But dear old Dad, the devout stealth Catholic, wasn’t privy to this history. My disbelief in God was news to him, and he wasn’t taking it well. He wasn’t buying the bit about my mom, the lady he’d made a baby with, who he apparently did not realize was a nonbeliever. She, in turn (I later discovered) was unaware of his Catholicism. Can you people please have a conversation before you create life? Sheesh. But Dad skipped over all that to say, “You’re just brainworshed. College did that to you.”
Collectibles and trinkets cover every flat surface of Dad’s house.
Okay. Now I’m annoyed. Here’s where THAT rears its ugly, italicized head. Okay, so you think I’m a stuck-up, artsyfartsy, judgmental douche, brainwashed by my liberal college? Now it’s coming out. College provided me with a sense of achievement, gave me an advantage in life, and helped me discover and channel my talents. To Dad, it served only to make me a hoity-toity snob. (Granted, that night I was wearing a monocle and speaking in a British accent.)
I’m well acquainted with the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. It’s a defense mechanism I struggle with, especially in Southern California. Those with more success, more drive, more privilege — they often seem a bit too big for their britches. Oh, you drive an Audi? Oh, you have a pool? Well la-di-da, Mr. Fancypants, excuse me for not having a giant safe full of diamonds hidden under my cash factory.
But of course those feelings always start with me, with a deep-seated belief that I’m not good enough. Maybe my dad feels more comfortable with the military version of me because it’s not threatening. It’s something he could have imagined doing himself.
Dad’s declaration that my beliefs in terms of God and religion had to come from college (which I didn’t even start until I was 24) made me realize how little we know each other. How could he think I was so weak-minded as to change a fundamental belief based on my surroundings? He seems to never have noticed that I was a person with thoughts. News flash, Dad: I was a stuck-up, artsyfartsy, judgmental douche long before college planted its Satanic seed. Ask anyone.
But I guess all this atheism stuff isn’t what flaggy, no-eyebrow-girl would say. That whore. If he’d only listened to what I thought about things, or attempted to impart what he believed was important, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Then again, I never noticed he had rosary beads.
Terri talks about writing the article and her upcoming projects.