Surfing YouTube at work, late of a Tuesday morning, posting retro vids of obscure songs and groups from my childhood on Facebook. Remember this one? I press enter, sit back, refresh the screen as responses begin to appear, happy to lead the nostalgia charge. I glory in an encyclopedic knowledge of radio hits. My youth, particularly the years that imprint musical taste—middle school more or less—took place at the absolute high-water mark for popular music. Those songs mattered for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the war.
My father: Navy fighter pilot. Five tours in ‘Nam. We moved around. Dad deployed overseas for weeks and months. There was a year-long tour of the Mediterranean in the early sixties where it was decided that relocating the family to Naples, was just too expensive. Mother and I languished in a state of suspended animation, passing a summer, fall, winter and most of a spring alone at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Shortly after returning from his odyssey, Dad spent several months in Florida on the front lines of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then, the bright shining lie of Vietnam.
After college, when life began to unravel in confounding ways—drinking, firings—I put in several years with a psychotherapist and assorted 12-step gatherings. It was determined that Dad’s prolonged absences had wounded me so deeply that I could expect to be viewing the rest of my life through the matchless prism of abandonment. No use wallowing in self-pity from that point on. Learning the source of my discontent set in motion a healing of sorts. I mended fences with my parents and two younger sisters. I forgave my father not just for the actual absences but for other frictions: his overcompensating every time he returned, reasserting authority with too heavy a hand. I’m a parent of two toddlers now and better understand where Dad was coming from. For his part, my father expressed sincere regret for his well-intentioned excesses. I figured it was all pretty much behind us.
But then along come these homecoming videos on YouTube. The first title that catches my eye—Soldier dad surprises son!—lodges in my throat like a cube of steak. Even before I hit play, my eyes involuntarily well with tears. Before viewing, I note the commentary:
The boy sprints to daddy, arms wide, launching himself like a missile, face already contorted with crushing emotion. There’s a poignant song underneath; something folky, acoustic and manipulative.
I pause the vid with the boy in mid-flight. I’m already sniffling, video viewed through the proverbial veil. After several replays, I’m drained. I lock my office door—quickly devouring the menu of related videos, watching all, until I’ve exhausted the entire thread. I have forsaken the day’s workload and lunch. I take a long, guilt-free nap on my office couch.
When I was eight, father again overseas, Mom signed me up for Pop Warner Football—another “character-building exercise.” I had no idea what I was in for—grueling two-a-days in 100-degree heat, calisthenics, endless running. I couldn’t hack it. My feet had been badly burned as a baby (electrical short, flaming curtain falling into the crib—horrible) and neither parent seemed willing to admit that I was, for all practical purposes, crippled. On the third day, after miles of laps in which I finished dead last, I suffered a complete nervous breakdown. The coach gathered the entire team around, as if to make an example of me. But he did not shame, as expected. Coach Tullis—a hulking black man, career Air Force—merely rested a hand on my sob-convulsed shoulders and declared:
“If it hurts, it’s okay to cry, men.”
When I quit the team that day, Mom ordered me to explain things to Dad via the monthly tapes we recorded on a 3M Wollensak reel-to-reel. Quite a morale-builder, that was. It’s just … not my thing, I mumbled, crappy microphone in hand, younger sisters eavesdropping. Dad didn’t mention my failed initiative in his next tape. But he did include a terse, frowning sort of acknowledgement in a letter. Was disappointed to hear your news … I carried the searing humiliation through adolescence, hobbling several halfhearted jockstrapping attempts to earn Dad’s approval in middle and high school.
When my own kids began organized athletics, I was determined to protect them from similar trauma, urgently—preemptively—explaining: “It’s okay to cry if it hurts!” But they stared at me in confused amusement. They were far less damaged, tougher. I settled for just being there, if needed.
Weeks pass. I devote more and more time to what I call The Pornography of Relief. That’s what it is, I decide, the reactions of these unsuspecting military dependents—pure catharsis. I know the feeling. It’s creepy; catching people—kids mostly—in an utterly naked emotional moment. No one asks if they mind having their souls splashed across the Internet and digitized into perpetuity. It is exploitative, yet irresistible to watch.
In my day, it was a private, family thing. There was respect.
Even as these words form in my head, I know this isn’t entirely true. There’s a picture in a family scrapbook of Dad returning from the Mediterranean Cruise. I clearly remember that homecoming: Dad and another pilot wore fezzes they’d picked up in Saudi Arabia or someplace as a joke. In the black and white 8 x 10 (a gift from a squadron PR wonk), I’m four, looking up at my father with a gap-toothed grin, shaking hands. Mom’s not in the picture. I hugged my father in the dignified way of those days, pressing my face into Dad’s flight suit that smelled just a tiny bit like skunk, for the ways of a warrior are wild.
So how to explain the unchecked emotion? Are all homecomings like this nowadays? They can’t be. The YouTube scenes seem cherry-picked for maximum sentimentality.
I consult my shrink, who cites the obvious: envy, sadness, loss. He suggests that, during the war of adolescence, I perhaps wished Dad wouldn’t come home. It is true that kids whose fathers were KIA seemed to be taken care of, sanctified even: hagiography with the sterling sheen of martyrdom. They achieved Instant Closure. Then I’d watch those same families slowly unravel; assorted misbehaviors, missteps, failed initiative. The absence of paternal presence inevitably caught up with them. MIA families had it even worse. I came to realize I was incredibly lucky to have a living father.
But when my littlest sister, four years old, got run over by a car and spent three months in the hospital—where was Dad? Somehow the injuries got downplayed in back and forth channels of communication to where it seemed … unnecessary for Dad to take emergency leave. We were at war, after all. The accident left obvious physical marks, but the deeper scar remained hidden from view, surfacing years later when she entered into that doomed marriage with a college professor 22 years her senior.
Several times I come close to forwarding one of these homecoming videos to my father, but I stop myself. What for? What am I trying to say or provoke? What’s the point? But the more of these videos I watch, the more my heart feels squeezed. The urge to blurt out some ancient confession takes hold. I share them with my sisters, but they never respond.
I begin to identify moments with my son and daughter, compare them to my own childhood. I isolate and identify traumas, nipping them in the bud with the power of my mere presence. Bullies, confusing social situations, shamings—the all-consuming inadequacies that dog us into adulthood like a lost limb. There is no substitute for a loving father, this I know too well. I take unreasonable pride in the seemingly well-adjusted arc of their progress.
Dad is not oblivious to this achievement. He even sends me a Father’s Day card addressed to: The Best Father I Know. Still, there’s unfinished business. But it’s not just love—it’s protection. It was popular in those days to adopt a sink-or-swim attitude with the kids; they were often “around” or “in the other room.” They’ll be okay. As a small boy, I was allowed astonishing freedom to wander from dawn to dusk, sometimes into early evening, covering dozens of miles—crazy by today’s standards. I recently saw a story about how they finally solved the mysterious disappearance of a boy from a military town where I’d once lived. A serial killer on death row confessed he’d buried the boy’s body at a nearby freeway construction site. Now they’re dismantling an overpass in a festivity of forensics.
I have a flimsy survivor’s pride that’s difficult enjoy or sustain. These videos remind me of my fraudulence; they lay me low in unexpected ways while at the same time flooding my eyes with almost unbearable, inexpressible joy. Sometimes on my way to work, I imagine myself buried beneath the freeway.
I swear off the videos for a while, but soon I’m back at it, searching for something unnamable. I know it’s there. Coworkers notice my red eyes. Allergies, I tell them.
One day, after months of daily, almost hourly surfing, I find it:
Son flees in terror from returning soldier dad!
It starts out normal enough; high-and-tight-haircut Marine father waiting in the wings while his son sits in the front row of a preschool assembly looking bored. An all-too common setup, actually. I’ve noticed a lack of surprise among what I now call “the marks”; I sometimes suspect they’ve been tipped off, or intuited what was about to happen.
This preschooler, however, is caught completely unawares.
Offstage and hidden from view, the USMC First Lieutenant stands, grinning, utility cover of his camo uniform wedged under his left armpit. He’s got hawkish eyes, an earnest snaggle-tooth grin, his right arm clutching a misty-eyed Semper Fi wife. She’s Corp issue, all the way: honey-blonde, skin like a Vogue model. Wives of Marines are often stunning.
The boy has daddy’s hawk eyes, mother’s hair. It’s a small room, cafeteria maybe. A woman teacher steps up and says they have “a special guest today who’s going to talk about the job of a soldier.” First Lieutenant puts on his camo cap, stands erect and strides out from behind the curtain to face his kid—who shoots up vertically, like a bobcat, twists around with a screech and hits the ground running, making straight for the door. The First Lieutenant stands there, dumbstruck. Then everyone, including the audience gives chase. The camera keeps rolling; for a time it’s just jiggling linoleum tiles. The camera suddenly lifts, revealing a playground. The boy sprints like a champion, screams like a horror movie queen. He takes them around the playground; between swings, over play structures and slides, through crawl tubes. It’s an adrenaline-powered ballet of Parkour evasion. At first, people giggle with sincere hilarity. Then nervous snickers. Then they stop laughing. He’s wearing them out. They’re getting grumpy. Occasional shots of the father, thin-lipped with embarrassment—yet his eyes … what is that? Hurt? Yes—and worry. Still, the boy does not slow down—if anything he speeds up. He’s heading for the field! someone shouts. We can trap him by the fence! The person with the camera pants. It’s exhausting to watch. They close in. The boy’s screams increase; it hurts my heart. He runs to one fence, tries to scale it, then tries the other. Now he’s in a corner. Arms raised. Surrendering. Crying.
The father is wrecked, perplexed; the mission a complete failure. The boy has his arms locked around dad’s head, face deep into the buzz cut, eyes clenched. The sobs are so loud it takes me a minute to realize they’re my own. It is the most satisfying video I’ve ever seen, almost orgasmic. It’s a build: amused chuckles, followed by belly laughs, ending with something like a little tragic death. My door is closed, of course, but I’m sure everyone is wondering what’s wrong with me. The answer? Nothing.
This is the one I will email to my father. I just have to get myself together.
Subject header: Watch this.
Text below: Now.
I’ll send it. Then call him. Or maybe he’ll call me first. Even though he’s old and everything is hard for him, maybe he’ll get on a plane and come to me. I’ll drive to the airport, wait for him at the gate. When we see each other, we’ll embrace. I’ll take in the fragrance of my father: that sour, sweet musk of travel and stale cologne. We’ll have lunch. We’ll talk.
Or maybe he’ll just call. Maybe he’ll call and ask me to come to him. Once I send the email, he’ll call for sure. Unless he doesn’t.