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Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Formation

by Nancy Graham

Four thousand Air Force cadets stand at parade rest in sky blue and navy rows on a cloudless August day. On the emerald grass behind them, a handful of men and women in desert camouflage lounge next to large backpacks. From my vantage point among the tourists, the contrasts in uniform and posture are striking. Are the slouching soldiers being sent home in disgrace? Are they meant to remind us how wars are really fought these days?

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of standing in formation dressed in a crisp uniform.  I picked up recruiting brochures at the post office and pestered my father while he polished his National Guard boots and brass bars. His weekends with the Guard seemed to my child’s mind like exotic trips. While he was gone, I practiced my marching skills.

Was it on one those weekends he first thought of leaving us? I imagine my father slumped on a folding cot after a day of drills, taking deep drags on a Camel. Perhaps there was some joshing in the barracks about the burdens back home. He was not much older than the airmen-in-training below me. 

My musing is interrupted when two of the camouflaged figures take off at a dead run toward the ranks of cadets and pull one of them back out of formation. For a hazing ritual? A special assignment? Because a response hadn’t been barked with sufficient enthusiasm?

When the trio arrives at the backpack, the camouflaged figures lower the cadet to the grass and hand him a bottle of water. The woman in camo waits until he takes a deep drink, and then pushes the cadet’s head down between his knees. Once he is in the desired position, she snaps back up. Her weight shifts onto the forward leg; she is ready to run.

A female voice comes from behind us. “The people in camouflage are EMTs. Sometimes if you lock your knees, even if you stay hydrated . . .” I turn to see the shrug. The speaker is a cadet in the same sky blue and navy uniform. She has been assigned to answer our questions but no one has had any.

A tourist finds his voice, “Do the cadets get in trouble? For fainting?”

Our cadet smiles. “Not anymore.” 

Her shoulders are squared, but there is sweetness in her voice. She seems, for lack of a better word, nice. Standing there in her uniform, this young woman appears to be both confident and compassionate, just the sort of person who should command troops and weapons someday. I can see why she was chosen for this public relations assignment.

My father started leaving us for traveling jobs when my younger sister was born. Eventually, his visits home came at greater and greater intervals. My mother retreated back to her hometown. But she was a husbandless woman and we were fatherless children and we were not greeted with open arms.

Down below, more cadets are swaying. The EMTs prowl like coyotes around a herd of cattle, eager to cull the weak. Soon there are five or six cadets reclining on the green lawn. Will they suffer punishment later at the hands of their peers? Or will the shamed cadets just cry silently in the shower tonight?

I thought I could win my father back. I just needed to march with more crispness, earn more Girl Scout badges, capture more academic awards, read more impressive books, create more order in the world, and be more charming and witty. He would see my accomplishments and reward them with his presence. The family would be miraculously reassembled.

The cadets below are raising and lowering flags on command. A parade. That’s what this type of military assembly is called, I remember. The word we use for the passage of clowns and convertibles has military origins.

Until recently I thought my father’s leaving was selfish; he was too absorbed in his own search for happiness to give a thought to ours. If so, it didn’t work. He was never satisfied with his life and deeply disappointed to have been born too late for the real wars. He drifted and then he died at a young age.

Now I see that his departure must have been an act of desperation. My parents were too young when they married; they were certainly too young to be parents. Deserted, my mother, sister, and I loved each other as much as we could. My father dropped by from time to time. We were all permanently shaken, but I now think that he paid the highest price. Perhaps with time this insight can become forgiveness.

The tops of my shoulders are burning. I have no cardigan, no sunscreen, and no parasol to shield me from the Colorado summer sun. Visiting the Academy had been a whim, the parade a surprise. While I do not feel faint like the cadets sprawled on the grass, I will bear physical evidence of being here even for a short time.

This year I left my husband after a twenty-eight year marriage. Our tall, confident daughters will never be fatherless or motherless. But we are no longer in the same formation. Do I begin to see my father’s path as courageous because I want to view my own departure in the same light? Or do I think I earned the right to go by staying so long? I don’t know; I was merely certain that it was time to leave.

The tourists who flank me on the viewing platform seem determined to stay until all four thousand cadets march past on their way to the dining hall and the brass band lowers its instruments. But I am thirsty and turn away from the spectacle. I’ve seen enough. I smile at the young woman cadet as I pass and she smiles back.

Nancy Graham lives in Colorado.  Employed for many years in corporate America, she now writes full time, mentors a high-risk high school student, and serves on the board of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.  Graham has degrees in English and Political Science.

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