Archive for May 2014

Of Flags and Regret

 ~a little short story for Memorial Day~

It was 4:15 p.m. and had been a slow day that I was anxious to see end.  I shifted things on my desk and stacked folders to be audited in the morning on the left corner when the telephone rang.  It was Captain Reynolds.

“Specialist, you need to report to Main Post Headquarters in the morning at 7:30.”

One thing you learn in the military is to never question your commanding officer.  “Yes sir.  I’ll be there.”

“Someone from West Point wants to talk with you.  Go to room 234.”

It wasn’t the first time I had been called to an out-of-the-ordinary meeting.  The last time, I was asked if I would pose for a joint military recruitment poster.  I agreed but never heard from them again so wondered what this meeting could be about.

The next morning, I arrived fifteen minutes early in combat fatigues – strange attire for a finance job in a regular office setting but was quite appropriate for the First Infantry Division.  It was a crisp October morning, and I was glad I had remembered to wear my field jacket.  I stopped to remove an orange maple leaf stuck in the lace of my boot as I opened the door into Headquarters and headed up the stairs.  I moved through the open door of office 234 and saw a fortyish-looking man with a thick black moustache and silver colonel insignia on his collar flipping through a folder.  He looked up, “Specialist, Colonel Smith here.  Please have a seat.  I need to ask you a few questions.”

He was matter of fact, yet polite.  “Why did you join the Army?”

I was certain he didn’t want to be launched into all of the details.

I came from a very simple life in a small town where finances were limited and less than a quarter of the girls attended college.  The majority got married or found jobs.  I was a good student, however, and intended to attend a four-year university after graduation.  My well-meaning intention lacked appropriate knowledge and planning.  I hadn’t a clue on the process required to apply, be accepted, and actually attend a formal university.  Somehow I fell through the cracks when it came to receiving guidance for this process during my high school years, which angered a very supportive business teacher when she learned of my alternative plan.

I killed an engagement with my high school sweetheart as I entered my senior year and yearned for something different – a taste of the real world.  I didn’t want to be trapped in the cocoon of small-town philosophy.  So I shocked my family and friends and joined the military.  It was a far cry from dresses, matching shoes, baton twirling, ice skates, and a lifelong dream of dancing.  Joining the military in the mid-seventies appealed to me because I could use the GI Bill to fund my education just a couple of years later.  I scored high on the entrance exam and was allowed to attend advanced training in any field desired except auto mechanics.  After basic training and extended training in finance, I was assigned to a regular position where I worked and interacted with civilians even though I was in the Army.  I enjoyed military life and my work and enrolled in night courses.  I coasted according to plan until I met my future husband.

I spared the colonel and modestly answered, “To travel and receive educational benefits.”

“Well, at this pace, it’s going to take you a decade to finish your degree.  We have another way in mind.”

I felt like he had a video play-by-play of my life as he prodded with various questions.  What was the meaning of this?  About a half hour into the session, I realized I was being interviewed to be in the first graduating class at West Point to include female cadets.  At the end of the session, he said I was accepted.

He concluded, “You are the only person on this post being interviewed, and we are taking only four or five in total.  We feel it is best to do a trial run with women who are already exposed to military life.  Much planning and orientation is required prior to the next session.  I am sorry, but you have only two weeks to confirm the appointment.”

This should have been a no brainer.  But at nineteen, the eight-year commitment seemed an eternity.  To add to my confusion, my boyfriend returned and had no desire to be held captive by military life.  At the beginning of the summer, I left for a two-week leave to attend my best friend’s wedding in the neighboring state, Missouri.  He left at the same time for New York to visit his family.  I returned as scheduled after the wedding and waited for his call … and waited and waited.  Long before the day of cell phones, there was no way to reach out to him.  I only knew his name, had never met his parents, and my attempts at finding a phone number for them failed.  I was emotionally exhausted and filled my spare time with designing and sewing a wedding gown for a ceremony we had planned in the coming winter – a gown that was never worn.  I crafted several scenarios in my mind of what might have happened to him but ultimately accepted that I had been dumped.  It had been a long depressing summer.

I resolved not to accept the appointment.  Quite frankly, I didn’t realize the opportunity that I let slip away until years later.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that would not come again.  I was in love and chose my heart over my head.

I set my course with this decision and lived the traditional family life.  It was not a bad choice. We married two months later at the local courthouse, and I left the military the following year.  My shoes changed from combat boots to high heels in the corporate world.  Ten years passed, and we were blessed with a healthy baby boy.  Within five years, another two sons completed our family.  I donned sneakers, left my corporate career, and celebrated life with bottles, diapers, Disney movies, and a treasured minivan.

But five years later, I sobbed and was rattled with fear when I realized I would have to return to the business world.  Holy cow, corporate life had changed from Selectric typewriters and mainframe systems to a personal computer on every desk!  I had to start all over from scratch – at the bottom.  It occurred to me that by the time our first son was born, I would have been well beyond the eight-year West Point commitment and I had already had a successful business career.  I dried my tears as I exchanged sneakers for high heels once again.  A year later, I was in full swing switching between high heels in the daytime and baseball cleats at night and on the weekends as I juggled the roles of wife, career, mom, and baseball manager.  It was a life overflowed with much joy.

Then one day I faced the empty nest and a divorce all at one time.  I pondered life’s decisions: past, present, and future and reflected on not achieving my potential in that very first career.  I lived for the moment rather than the future, and maybe that is/was the better road.  I appreciated the blessings of a family life but perhaps could have had both.

Last Memorial Day I embarked on a day’s journey to attend a family reunion in my small home town.  This memory of a lost opportunity smacked me in the face as I circled the on-ramp to the interstate.  Right there, in the wide-open plain twice the size of a football field, a sea of American flags was planted into the ground – more flags than one could count – rows and rows of old glory blowing out in full honor standing at attention.  Patriotism and pride rose from within my soul as I remembered.  And it struck me; I might have worked in the Pentagon and White House or retired a general by now.  I should have tried for it all.

Flags

Oh to have the wisdom of “fifty something” when we are but only nineteen.

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Misunderstood Maggie

Fifty-five years ago today she died, May 4, 1959.  She saw yellow – a flower, the sun, or the light of heaven.  Four days later, she was buried on a beautiful spring day just like today. Flowers galore lined the church as cousin Bub carried her crippled brother, Ben, up the long flight of stairs to take his seat with the family.  Bub’s and cousin Beverly’s high school senior trip was delayed a few days out of respect for this family event.  My mother, four months pregnant with her third daughter, traveled with other siblings from California to lay her mother to rest.

I don’t remember those days – too young, so I am told.  But why do I remember other very specific things – events, her mannerisms, her kindness, where she lived – details that should not be present in the memory of a then three-year-old little girl?  But I do remember.  And I learned other things as I researched family history, studied dates and notes, and listened to stories.  I find it interesting that my middle son was born one hundred years after her – 1888 to 1988.

She bore the first name of her maternal grandmother, Rhoda.  She was called by her middle name – Margaret, Maggie, Mag.  She was a beautiful young woman, thick hair and wide blue eyes.

Mag on the right, sister Lucy on the left

Mag on the right, sister Lucy on the left

Consent was required by her mother when she married at the tender age of 16 and was thrust into adulthood on another spring day.  Tomorrow is the 110th anniversary of that union.

She was a hard worker and devoted mother.  She gave birth to sixteen children over twenty-nine years.  She lost one baby girl and one little boy loved by all.  She said, “A piece of you dies when your child dies.”  She worked in the fields like a man stopping only to nurse the newest baby and prepare meals for the family.  Much of this time, she was also pregnant with the next child.

She was a woman of faith and taught that faith to others, specifically children.

She made a very difficult decision and endured ridicule and criticism by ones who felt worthy to judge.  She walked away.  She was a strong woman, misunderstood by many who tried to shame her.  In the years to come, she held her head high and was respected by all who knew her.  She carved out her new life; she continued to work hard.  She was loved.

As she turned the page of her 71st year, she knew her time was short.  Her once vibrant hair now was gray, and her eyes bore the lines of a life not easy.  She returned to her Midwest homeland, a journey that would place her just a few weeks away from her eternal home – the thing I grasp to remember but cannot.  Instead, I remember the apples, the hula hoop, the coffee with cream and sugar in a china cup, and calling her Mammy.

I see yellow today too – the sun, the tulips, and eternal hope until I see the light of heaven that she saw.  I loved her.

Rhoda Margaret
March 21, 1888 – May 4, 1959

Rhoda Margaret 1940s

You can find the vignette, “Mammy” in Reflections.  Stay tuned for more family history in the book “Helen’s Heritage.” 

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