My parents met when they both served in the United States Air Force. After a whirlwind four-month courtship, they were married at the end of July in 1974. Before her honorable discharge, my mother could be found, at nine months pregnant, waddling across airplane wings while toting a large toolbox as she worked fixing military aircraft. As my father finished up his service to his country, he sent my mother far from her home in California to live with his family in Pennsylvania.
My dad eventually joined her, and they made a life together in a quiet town on the New York/Pennsylvania border. I was the fourth of five eventual children, though one of my brothers died in infancy. When I was 6, my father took a dangerous job as a federal agent. He left my mother and us kids behind and went down south to do his training. I can’t in all honesty tell you how long he was there for. At that age, I couldn’t have differentiated between two weeks or two years. I know he wrote us letters and sent us gifts, telling us all about how hard he was working and how much he missed us.
While he was gone, my mother set about selling most everything we owned, including our house. We were leaving everything and everyone I knew behind and moving out west. My youngest brother was only 3 (almost 4) at the time, and I remember being jealous that he got to sit up front with my mother and my aunt, while the rest of us kids (plus my older male cousin) hopped in the back of a pickup truck with what was left of our belongings and drove across the country. We would be staying with my mother’s family in California while my dad finished his training, and then we’d be moving on to our new life somewhere in southern Texas.
It was a frightening time for me. At that age, I didn’t totally understand what was going on. I was still in kindergarten and would have to finish up at a new school where I didn’t know a soul. I missed my father terribly, and I asked daily when I’d get to see him again. No one could or would give me a straight answer.
As the school year drew to a close, I spent hot months in the desert with family. I remember fishing trips and going bowling with my Aunt and Uncle. I remember seeing my cousin finish up his Little League season. I remember an Easter Egg hunt. We must have been there for several months, though it all kind of blurs together for me now.
And then suddenly it was July. At the height of summer, I sat in the yard with my cousin and some neighborhood kids as we practiced counting to 10 in Spanish and licking the sugar out of the honeysuckle flowers that grew in my aunt’s garden. We joked and laughed and planned for the coming holiday. I didn’t really understand the significance of the Fourth of July, though my parents had always instilled in us a love of country.
When the day arrived, we headed out to another relative’s house, where we were given sparklers and let loose with all the other kids in the family to play and have fun. My mother warned us to be very careful around any type of explosive. She regaled us with a story about one of her close relatives who’d had her hand blown off from a firework. It was a scare tactic that worked. To this day I keep my distance from all but the most benign Independence Day favors.
After a long day out in the hot and dusty desert, it was finally time for some fireworks. I heard terms like “bottle rocket” and “Roman candle” thrown around, but I didn’t know what they meant. I was tired and wanted to see a show and go to bed. I stared up into the evening sky, waiting to be dazzled, but instead of pyrotechnics, I was treated to something unexpected and wonderful. My eyes came into a hazy sort of focus and found in the twinkling twilight the face of my father staring back at me. Somehow, while we kids had been distracted in our fun and frivolity, he had found his way back to us. It felt strange but comfortable to be back in his arms again. I held him tight in case it was all a dream. I never wanted to let go.
Our family was reunited at last. I spent that night high on his shoulders watching the lights bursting into thousands of falling stars, and I wished on every one of them that I’d never have to be away from my daddy again.
The next day we would have to pack up once more and head out to a new life where the government called the shots. He’d have to work long hours, sometimes far away from us, and there would be danger and constant worry. But for one night, as I held my father tight, I understood what it meant to be independent. And it was good.