An Officer And A Son

ESSAY

May 23, 1993|By JOANNE SHERMAN

It is an unusually bright morning. Painfully bright. I am sitting in a pew on the right side of the chapel at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., witnessing a commissioning ceremony. I am listening to a man, once a fighter pilot, now the president of a major company, address the knot of people sitting on the left side of the chapel. He is reminding them of what they have accomplished to be part of the elite group they have just joined and what might be expected of them in the future.

I've been in this chapel before. At least I think I have. The interiors of Navy chapels do have a tendency to look alike, as though the architect was instructed to design a "churchy" building able to lend itself to most religions while still maintaining the proper military bearing.

The man's speech is probably interesting, but I'm not able to focus on his words. I keep thinking, "What in the world am I doing here?"

Somewhere -- in the middle of that group on the left, it's hard to tell exactly because my vision is blurry and there are 30 of them and they all look alike -- is my little boy. My Navy brat. The one who for most of his young life watched his father leave for work every day in a Navy uniform and repeatedly asked, "Are we ever DTC going to be like ordinary people?"

I fight the nearly overpowering urge to stand up and say, "Hold everything, there's been a little mistake here." I want to reach into that group of brilliantly white uniforms and brass buttons, find the hand that clutched mine on the first day of kindergarten (at a Navy base in Atsugi, Japan) and lead him out of this chapel.

Looking around at the other mothers sitting on my side of the chapel, many of them, like me, wives of career military men, I am relieved that I'm not the only one who's sniffling, or who looks how-did-I-get-here stunned. We military wives spent so many years being confident, optimistic and stoical, as our husbands' jobs often placed them in real danger. I hope I still have it in me to do that all over again. But then, in typical military-wife, now military-mother fashion, I brush bad thoughts from my mind. I will do what I have to do. I will cope. I think.

For the most part, the women are sitting alone. Our camera-wielding husbands, the proud fathers of this newest class of pilots and flight officers, are tripping over each other in their search for the best position to watch and beam and photograph. Whispering, they exchange historical data with each other: I came through here in '61. I had a tour here in '74. I retired in '80. Weren't you at the Pentagon in '77? I'm retiring next year.

Interesting how we women shift across the spaces vacated by our husbands so that we are sitting close to each other. Except for the brief reception the night before, we are strangers. But we touch shoulders, pass tissues, and I wonder if we share the blasphemously unpatriotic secret that is buried so deep in my heart: My child is more important to me than my country.

After the ceremony, I meet the people who have reshaped my son during the past months. The drill sergeant who stood over him while he remade his bed 137 times, until it was perfect. All I ever forced him to do was take vitamins. I meet the instructor who pounded into the boy's head the mantra "Only perfect is acceptable." Ninety-nine percent is close, but when landing a jet on the deck of a carrier, close enough doesn't count. I feel guilty remembering that I displayed his "B" papers on the front of the refrigerator.

During the part of the ceremony held on the parade grounds, a formation of jets flies over our heads. There are too many of them, I think, traveling too low, too fast, and much too close together. Mothers look up and bite their bottom lips. Fathers take pictures. Our children, the Navy's newest officers, stand at attention, "locked-on," eyes straight ahead. Glistening eyes. It is obvious that a mere half-inch away from those brass buttons, young hearts thump furiously at the roar of jet engines.

Ceremonies and official photograph sessions over, the base commander tells us we may spend some informal time with our children.

The group of ensigns relaxes and each goes in search of family. Fathers shake hands with officer-sons, and hug officer- daughters. Mothers hug everyone: their children, other people's children, the base commander, the official photographers. A woman from North Carolina asks which one is mine. I point to the kid standing a few yards away. The one polishing the black part of his hat with his sleeve.

"He's a very handsome man," she says.

Man? I almost laugh. That's not a man, that's my baby. I can still hear the echo of his first full sentence: "My daddy's in Vietnam." When he was 8 years old, the USS America was his personal playground, and when he was 10 he told me he was tired of being "military." That was when he started wishing he could be ordinary. For several years he resented being part of a military family, and he let us know it, often.

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