Go Navy

After twenty-five years of active duty — after Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Gulf War — my father officially retired from the US Navy.

It happened quietly, since my father had unofficially retired three years earlier and had been on active duty reserve for the last two years, during the Gulf War. During those two years, I was finishing my last year in high school and busy with pre-college prep and my new boyfriend, my younger sister was still in high school and busy with marching band, my younger brother and youngest sister were still in middle school and busy with school and sports, and my mother had been working twelve-hour shifts for nearly a decade at a local hospital.

I mention these things because my family had a set pattern of living that did not include my father working a 9 to 5 job and coming home every afternoon, of my father being at the house all year. Although my mother, my siblings, and I settled down in Texas after the move from Guam, my father continued to be transferred after his tour in NAS Dallas was over: Diego Garcia, in the middle of the Indian Ocean; Naples, Italy; Pensacola, Florida; Gulfport, Mississippi.

It was during his last tour at Gulfport that my father would come home every weekend, when I would pick him up from DFW Airport because the huge airport, with its exits and on-ramps and confusing signs, scared my mom and got her lost. Since the transfer from Guam, my father was an E7 Chief Petty Officer, and he had remained E7 for all of those years, all of those transfers. Perhaps he saw no more promotions, no more overseas transfers to exotic places, as he saw evidence of the Cold War thawing all around him. But one day, I picked him up from the airport, and he didn’t leave home.

At first, my father literally didn’t leave the house. He rearranged the furniture – all the furniture in a three-bedroom, two-bath house. He fixed the roof, which needed it after years of Texas hailstorms. He gardened and did creative landscaping. While outside, he also fixed the shed. Since he was alone most days, he bought two dogs and walked them as part of his exercise regime.  On weekends, he thoroughly cleaned the house.  He cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

After a month of this, he developed cabin fever, and one day he stared out the window, his hands in his pockets, as his wife went to work and his children went to school. He applied for work, but he heard nothing from his applications.

The next month, my father enrolled in a composition class, an accounting class, and a music appreciation class at the local community college. It was strange yet comforting to see him at the kitchen table, with his spiral notebooks, pens, textbooks, tape recorder, and calculator. My father had something to do, and he was happy. Thus, the whole family was happy. He stressed the importance of education to get a good job, the importance of always learning, “or else you get left behind.”

But these classes were only summer classes, and after a month, after passing the tests and getting a little certificate for his efforts, he was again at home, staring out the window.

“How come Pa’s not working?” my youngest sister asked my mom one day, and Mom only shook her head and said, “Shhh.”

Finally, Pa got a job, working the midnight shift as a custodian for American Airlines at DFW airport. When the rest of the family was going to bed, Pa was leaving, dressed in his light blue custodian uniform, driving the little truck into the black night, towards the concrete and glass behemoth that is DFW Airport. When the rest of the family was waking up, getting ready for work or school, and then leaving, Pa was arriving from work, tired but relieved that he had something to do.

It wasn’t a matter of money – Pa’s Navy pension paid for the house and the IRA, and Mom’s work paid for the rest. It was a matter of the pride of a Filipino who had given nearly twenty-five years of his life to the United States of America.

Mom’s “Shhh” became ubiquitous while Pa worked for the airport. The normally boisterous household became quiet, and Pa snapped and yelled when we children disturbed his sleep. Finally the grind of working nights while the rest of the world worked days wore on Pa, and he and Mom started fighting again.

“Why can’t you find work that’s like the Navy? You’re trying, right?”

“I am trying! It’s not that simple!”

“But you were a Chief in the Navy…”

Pa would cut Mom off with an angry shake of his head, his hair grown out of his military haircut. “I was a Chief; now I’m…”

Pa would come home with six packs of beer and old airport magazines, and as I would leave for school, for my busy senior year and future hopes of college, I would see Pa’s face. His expression, after working for the airport for a couple of months, asked, “Is there no room for a Navy man in this civilian world? I don’t understand; it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

***

My father joined the US Navy in 1967. He had a college degree from a Filipino polytechnic university and was teaching English in a high school when he joined.  Nevertheless, he was not accepted as an officer because the US did not recognize his degree; he was an enlisted man, and he was sent to Rhode Island for basic training.

After he learned how to accept orders without thinking and how to handle various weapons, the US Navy put him on a supply ship in the Gulf of Tonkin as an E1 cook. 

As my father tells me, all Filipinos who enlisted at that time were automatically ship cooks – they were not trusted to be able to do anything else. My father enlisted during the Vietnam War, but he stayed at sea, feeding the men who went into Vietnam, feeding the living ghosts who came out of Vietnam. Even though my father had no desire to fight, he did not want to remain a cook, and so he began to do extra duty besides cook food: he inventoried supplies and kept track of consumption rates. While his other cohorts remained in the galley, he moved into procurement and supplies and never again had to bend over a steaming vat of mashed potatoes at four o’clock in the morning.

Thus began my father’s Navy life.

In 1968, on his shore leave in the Philippines, he married my mother and was immediately shipped off for a tour around the Pacific Rim. In 1972, he and Mom transferred to the base on Taipei, Taiwan, where I was born. Even though Nixon recognized mainland China the year I was born, we – my parents, me, and my little sister — didn’t leave Taiwan until 1976.

My father was promoted, and part of his promotion meant going to Great Lakes, Illinois, where my brother was born a year later. Another promotion, another transfer, to Charleston, South Carolina, and then to Guam, a tiny speck of an island in the far western Pacific Ocean.

We drove non-stop all the way from Charleston to San Diego in order to catch the transport plane to Guam, and I remember waking up in the dead of night, not being able to see beyond the headlights, and thinking, “We’re going to drop off the Earth any moment now.”

We visited relatives in California for a month or two, and then we arrived at Guam in early 1979. Later that year, my youngest sister was born, and I had my first real memories of school, friends, and my Filipino American childhood.

In 1982, my father had his final promotion to E7, and we transferred to Dallas, TX, where he retired into active-duty reserve status in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the year my father’s sense of self came tumbling down.

***

“Your Pa got a new job!” my mother announced as we children came home from school.

Mom was home early, and she was almost never home early. Pa was also home, not dressed in his light blue custodial uniform, but in a business suit, holding an attaché case.

“For whom?  The Postal Service?” Pa had been trying to get a postal service job because it had federal worker benefits.

“No, better!  He’s working for the Navy!”

In 1990, a year after Pa unofficially left the Navy, he got a federal job as a civilian budget clerk in the Southwest area, Navy recruiting headquarters in Dallas. A year after he left the Navy, he returned to the Navy and found his sense of self again, his sense of authority.

Five years later and some promotions later, Pa became a logistics officer, and his federal employee rank, his GS number, was equivalent to an officer.

“I’m equal to a junior lieutenant, and chief petty officers salute me!” my father used to say to me with glee once he realized this, the man who retired with the enlisted rank of E7. It was almost like a kind of sweet revenge.

When I was in college, my father kept suggesting that I become an officer once I graduated. He couldn’t help it; he worked for a recruiting office, and the Navy defined who he was and is as an American.

Even though I have no desire to work and live under the command of the military, I must admit that my love of travel, my openness to all sorts of people and cultures, my American English accent, and even my somewhat embarrassing attraction to men in military uniforms comes from being a military brat. I can see my decision to lead an academic life as an analogue to my father’s decision to lead the military life, which opened him to travel, education, and definition of self.

When I graduated from college and went straight to grad school, he would still mention Officers’ Candidate School to me, but this time with a half-joking smile.

In contrast, when my brother got into the type of trouble my father was trying to avoid by not settling down in California, my father pulled him aside and commanded, “You will graduate from high school, you will take some college classes, you will lose weight, and you will go into the Navy.” I did not attend my MA graduation because I was with my family, in Great Lakes, Illinois, where my brother was born nineteen years earlier, to see him graduate from Navy boot camp, which had more life-or-death meaning than my missed graduation.

My brother, like my father, found his livelihood and his sense of self in the US Navy, while my brother’s high school friends dropped out of high school or community college, found and lost menial jobs, got their girlfriends pregnant, and lived off of their parents’ money. My father saw this possible future – this American non-future – and looked to the Navy for the solution, just as he saw it back in 1967.

My family is a Navy family, and I don’t know whether this is typically Filipino American or not. I know Filipinos who have retired from the US military, but my father returned as a civilian, where he has served for the past twenty years. My brother served ten years in the military as a Navy corpsman, and Pa used to make noises at my youngest sister to join until she was pushing thirty.

My parents’ doorbell at their old house before all the kids grew up and moved away used to ring Anchors Aweigh; at their now-not-so-new house, whole areas are dedicated to my father’s and my brother’s Navy awards and commendations, including a huge Navy flag on one bedroom wall. I have Navy recruiting mugs in my kitchen cabinet, and I’ve advised teenagers who are interested in the military on how to enlist.

Even though my military ID card expired nearly twenty years ago, even though I’m pretty cynical about the efficacy of the American government in solving the problems of its people, citizen or non, and even though my voting record can sometimes be a study in apathy and in choosing the lesser of two evils, I’m still a part of a Navy family, thanks to the unwavering belief of one, patriotic man.

As a result, I’ll always have a mixed, bittersweet affection for all things American – and for all things Navy.

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