VOL 002: an introduction and a funeral
Though the story has arrived in Springfield, it’s done so by land. In a red VW camper, we drove cross-country. But driving held no allure. My relationship with autos is nonexistent. Cars have taken me so much closer to death than planes, as far as I know. Even that camper’s pop-top sleeping space struck me as a death trap. Some drowsy innocent, particularly a toddler, could just roll right out of there, landing head-first on the bare camper floor.
Still, there is relevant back story here that must be included, flights or not. This is where you get to meet Obie through my memories, rather than Dora’s. Though we only ever took a single flight together, his career was responsible for so many of mine. It’s important you meet him as I did, back in San Diego.
Most of our California time was absent Dad, who was stationed in Vietnam, putting his artillery and French skills to good use keeping the Domino Effect at bay in Southeast Asia, supposedly. But it wasn’t all without Obie. I don’t remember all the months – weeks? – he was with us during our brief time in San Diego, but his arrival at our Pacific Beach bungalow on Missouri Avenue is my first memory. Not merely my first memory of him, but of anything. Maybe I owe him something for helping my earliest memorable synaptic reaction sit so snugly in my brain. It’s not a blur. I’ve revisited the scene many times. All the details remain.
HIS PRESENCE WAS LIKE
A NATURAL DISASTER
A large man – a giant, really, compared to not only me, but to mother and adolescent brother and sister – his presence was like a natural disaster. A meteorite had smashed into our house and there he sat in the kitchen on a green vinyl chair. I was apprehensive and anxious, lingering at the edge of the kitchen, cautiously observing. Who was this? What might be the ramifications? Odder still, why are my sister and brother so receptive? Why are they sitting at the table with him, smiling, engaging him? What has he brought into our dynamic worth celebrating? Things are louder now. And my mother is not in the kitchen with them. He is stealing her authority. But I like her authority! I don’t like this.
Obie, as he reunites with his two children, is fully aware that the third is scoping him out. He knows I’ve had the liberty of growing without him. I’ve tasted matriarchal calm, a system that did not place him at the top of the hierarchy. I am the dissident. It was time to test my loyalty and obedience, time for authority to be exercised. Or, maybe my father was simply trying to include me.
Regardless, our first contact was exactly what might be expected, considering my father’s career in the oxymoronic field of “military diplomacy.” Thanks to war, the Obie I met was not the “fun dad” that Patrick and Megan already knew. They had the benefit of a doubt to give. I did not.
Obie was downing a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, his beer of choice. Certainly not his first that afternoon. Taking the last swig, he turned to me standing at the perimeter, clinging to the entryway molding. The spotlight turned to me.
“Billy, throw this away,” he instructed. This was our moment, and it happened to run counter to the efforts other adults were making in my life at the time: teaching me the basics of “please” and “thank you.” Much like Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL, I was conflicted.
Obie was giving me a command, but there was no “please.” What’s wrong with this giant? Is he checking to see if my social graces have been tended to in his absence? I know there is something more going on than his simple command. But what? It’s very complicated. What to do?
“No,” I respond, matter of factly. He’ll likely commend me now for recognizing his omission of “please.” But he doesn’t. Instead, the look on his face is shock. Why is he shocked? Where is the smile and my compliment? This guy obviously has some important role in this family, must want me to bring my A-game, right? Ah, looks like he’s about to ask again. This time he’ll get it right. He’s just being dramatic for flair, adding some tension before politely asking, “Billy, please throw this away.” Then he’ll laugh and the tension will dissipate and my relationship with my father will begin on perfect footing. But the second iteration is no different than the first, save for it being a bit firmer. At this point in the memory, I keep hoping my younger self will just throw away the damn can. It would’ve taken little effort. My father, the PBR can, me, the garbage can – we’re all occupying the same 25 square feet of off-white linoleum. This would be easy.
That’s not how it went down.
Instead, I defy him and his impolite language once more. War-torn Obie responds by slapping me. It probably wasn’t much more than a tap. But at barely 3, if that, it was the greatest violence I’d ever experienced. I was in pain and I was stunned. Believe me, I did not see that coming. Of the variables my fresh brain computed, being struck by this guy was not among my list of possible outcomes.
I WANTED TO START SCREAMING
Reflexively, yet trembling, I took the empty can and walked it the couple steps to the garbage. I wanted to start screaming, but I also did not want to make any sudden movements. With the task executed, I looked to the exit, backing myself carefully out of the kitchen. Perhaps four tiny steps later, out of sight of Genghis Dad, I fled, running down the hallway of the small house to the master bedroom, letting loose my sobs, desperate for asylum with my mother. The memory ends before I reach her.
Sometime after that – within a year or so – we established ourselves in Springfield, Va., an Everysuburb, USA. Immediate landmarks were the 7-11, Saint Bernadette’s Catholic Church and Burger Chef (until the company went under). Home was a rented split-level. Mom and Dad were upstairs, with Megan down the hall. Patrick and I shared the basement bedroom off the “rec room.” We had a carport for Dora’s light blue Pinto and Obie’s Datsun. I don’t know what become of the Volkswagen camper.
The selling point of this cul-de-sac spread, from a child’s point of view, was the massive back yard. Aside from a small concrete patio and a sad aluminum shed, the backyard was a wild wasteland, overrun with trees at the back. Along with digging around in dirt, breaking branches and tormenting toads, I felt privileged that my back yard abutted the yard of the house on the opposite side of the block. Being at the deepest point in our court, coupled with that large yard, meant that I could jump the chain-link fence in my little forest, land in the yard of someone I never met, and walk out to the sidewalk on the far side of my tiny universe. This suburban wormhole was particularly useful when ice-cream truck music was floating through the small woods.
In the macro, West (a distinction relevant to the NoVa initiated) Springfield also dictated our airports, our global gateways. To the northwest, Dulles International Airport was my first airport crush. The sweeping wing of Eero Saarinen’s masterpiece is the most elegant expression of an airport, minus all the additional terminals beyond the original, made of glass and regulated signage. It is a cathedral. Naming it for John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, seems an odd choice, though. He is a very lucky man to be remembered less for working to overthrow democracies than for this magical construction that has very little to do with him.
To the northeast, just before crossing the river into D.C., Washington National Airport was Dulles’ workhorse compatriot. Ronald Reagan usurped Washington as DCA’s namesake in 1998. Like me, most locals (old timers?) just call it National. That so irritated the Reganites who had ditched George Washington. Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, led the push to threaten federal funding to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority till the airport’s Metro platform signage was updated.
Quite a bit farther to the Northeast was our outlier: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. The best namesake, but least used by the O’Bryans. It really wasn’t on our radar, aside from a World Airways charter flight that Megan flew once in college. Today, I think of it primarily as the Holly Hunter airport. (See: Broadcast News, Home for the Holidays)
My second flight, age 4, was from this Springfield home, out of Dulles. Grandma Ella had died, so back to Switzerland. Except this time Dora took me, leaving Megan and Patrick home with Obie.
GRANDMA ELLA HAD DIED, SO BACK TO SWITZERLAND
Dora (L) and Aunt Betsy in Comano, while I rock my Garanimals and fiddle with an Italian plastic toy.
Really, I only have two memories of the trip – two more than I have of Ella, sadly. The first was the train from wherever we landed, likely Zurich, to Lugano, the closest station to my grandparents. Sitting in the train cabin with my mother and one other passenger, an elderly woman, I passed the time looking out the window during curves in hopes of spotting the front of the train, and fondling the tiny, wrapped bar of soap I’d taken from the plane as a souvenir. That’s the memory that tells me we must’ve been on TWA. Whenever this memory surfaces, so does that iconic double-sphered TWA logo in red and gold on stark white. Some wise adult knew the shiny wrapped soap could pull double duty entertaining a bored child.
The other memory is of standing in the kitchen of my grandparents’ retirement home in Comano, where Dora had last visited as a scorned spouse. I entertained myself by playing with a kitchen drawer of flatware. The rollers fascinated me. Swiss engineering? Back in the kitchen, at 4, my game took a bad turn when I pulled the drawer out – all the way – with all the metal and wood clattering to floor in this huge smash. The only other sound in the house came from my Aunt Betsy, a few feet away, washing dishes, mournfully, in relative silence. Here, with Dora and Uncle Jack, to bury their mother, Betsy must’ve been frayed. This funeral, after all, followed just a few years behind Aunt Charlotte’s, the whipsmart second-born, who shared many traits with Betsy. Charlotte, who died shortly before I was born, was the victim of a Brazilian gas leak, I’m told. My accident rattled the mausoleum-like house. And it reasonably rattled Betsy, who reflexively swatted me on my head and blurted what may well have been profanity. That part’s hazy. But it’s amazing how a swat can really fix a memory into a child’s head, whether deserved, as in this case, or not, as with Obie’s PBR.