Dear Dependents of the United States Air Force:
Welcome to your new duty assignment, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Okinawa is the principal island of the 160 islands that make up the Ryukyu archipelago. Only 67 miles long and from 2 to 17 miles wide, Okinawa is often referred to as the “Keystone of the Pacific” because of its strategic Far East location roughly 900 miles from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, and Hong Kong. Originally an independent nation, Okinawa has endured long periods of both Chinese and Japanese domination. After World War II, the island remained under U.S. military control. The United States will continue its custodianship as long as conditions of threat and tension exist in the Far East.
Bear in mind as you begin your tour that the serviceman’s family is just as much a representative of the United States Government as the serviceman himself.
Your President and Commander in Chief,
Lyndon Baines Johnson
On the map at the back of the pamphlet, Japan resembles a horned caterpillar rearing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My destination, the Ryukyu Islands, trails behind like a scatter of droppings. We’ve been in the air for seventeen hours. Sheets of rain snake across the plastic pane of the window next to me. A light on the wing blinks red in the night. Lulled by the drone of the jet engines taking me to join my family at Kadena Air Base, I slide back into the anesthetized stupor that travel always induces.
Phenobarbital, that was my mother, Moe’s, drug of choice for traveling with six children packed into a station wagon when we PCS’d—Permanent Change of Station—six times in eight years. We, her children, took the drug, not Moe. A nurse, she administered the meticulously titrated doses in tiny chips that floated like specks of goldfish food in our cups of apple juice. “How else was I supposed to keep you from murdering each other?” Moe had answered when I inquired about the peculiar lassitude that always seemed to overtake us upon departing Maxwell Air Force Base, or Travis, or Harlingen, or Brooks, or Kirtland, or Mountain Home Air Force Base. Especially Mountain Home. All I remember about leaving that base was pulling out of Boise, Idaho, with my breath freezing in the predawn mountain chill and regaining consciousness outside of Tonopah, Nevada, with a bib of drool and my nasal linings dried to corn flakes. “You drugged us? Your children? You drugged us?” “I thought about running a hose in from the exhaust pipe. That really would have quieted you down.”
“You drugged us?”
“Think about it, Bernie. Six kids, two of them in diapers when we transferred out of Japan, crammed into a station wagon with the luggage strapped on top and a maniac behind the wheel who wouldn’t stop unless you put a gun to his head. Me passing around the bologna sandwiches and the potty chair, sprinkling the cars behind us when the potty can got full. And the whole time I’m wrestling with a map the size of the Magna Carta and trying to navigate for a guy used to getting directions off a radar screen who keeps barking at me to do something about my children. No, I didn’t have a lot of patience left to deal with Kit screaming about you breathing’ on her or you screaming about Kit looking’ at you or the twins hammering monkey bumps and noogies and X no-backs into each other and Bosco wailing about whatever hamster or turtle or corn snake she had to leave behind at the last base and Bob reenacting entire episodes of Clutch Cargo and someone, usually you, barfing.”
“Yeah, but what if you’ve turned us all into junkies?”
“Well, if I have, all I can say is that I did the best I knew how and you lived to tell the tale. That’s all I can say.”
It was during an unmedicated moment on the long hot drive to Harlingen, Texas, that we all, all us sibs, realized we hated our ultra-Hibernian Catholic names. No one else at our new schools would be named after saints famous for being enucleated or having their tongues plucked out with pliers. We wanted regular names. So, as Moe passed around the potty seat, we rechristened ourselves with the most normal, most American names we could each think of. The twins, Frances Xavier and Bryan Patrick, chose Buzz and Abner. Joseph Anthony, just three at the time, selected Bob, since it was not only a great name and easy to spell but also his favorite aquatic activity. No one wanted me to change Bernie. Mary Colleen, our youngest sister, declared that henceforth she would be known as Nancy, her book-loving soul released in ecstasy at the thought of sharing Nancy Drew’s name. “Nancy?” We’d all hooted in unison. We’d already given her the perfect name, Bosco, when she was two and loved Bosco Chocolate Syrup, and we weren’t swapping it for some girl detective in a roadster.
“Okay,” Bosco had agreed. “But in my mind I’m still calling myself Nancy, and you can’t stop me.”
“The name represents the self,” my father said from the driver’s seat, flicking a white Tums out of a foil roll into his mouth. “A rejection of the name represents a rejection of the self. You all hate yourselves.”
We exchanged fiendish looks and had to agree. “Yeah, we all hate ourselves.”
“Eileen is the only one showing any sense.”
But it wasn’t sense my middle sister was showing; it was concentration. She glowed like a full-immersion Baptist bursting to the surface of the tank when she finally revealed, “My new name is Kitty.”
“Kitty?” Moe echoed.
“Okay, Kit. Kit Root.”
As Moe dealt out Sioux Bee honey and peanut butter sandwiches, I glanced at Buzz, Abner, Bob, and Bosco and wondered what we’d unloosed. It was clear that Eileen wasn’t getting the joke. Worse, with her platinum-blond hair and Siamese-cat blue eyes, the name Kit fit her too well.
At our new schools, we all registered under our real names and only called one another Buzz, Abner, Bob, Bosco, and Bernie at home. But Eileen died that day and never again answered to anything, anywhere, except Kit.
Maybe it was the phenobarbital; still, even without chemical amendments, moving, the part after the packers left but before I became the new girl, a spot I tended to occupy until the packers came again, was always the coziest time in my life. Just me and the sibs and Moe, sealed up in our mobile incubator hurtling down the highway, stuck to the vinyl seat covers, glued to one another with sweat, everyone oozing together, breathing the breaths a sister or brother had exhaled a hundred miles ago. Just us. No outsiders. Outsiders—which is to say, anyone that Moe had not brought into this world—and my family did not mix. We’d only allowed an outsider into the family once. Fumiko. Of course I’m thinking about Fumiko again. The first time I crossed the Pacific I was six years old, twelve years ago, and heading for the horned caterpillar itself, not the droppings. Fumiko became part of our family the day we landed in Japan and was one of us for four years. Bob hadn’t even been born when we PCS’d out of Japan eight years ago, and Bosco was barely two, so they don’t remember Fumiko at all. The twins, who’d hung on to her like orangutan babies for the first three years of their lives, have no memory of her either. Kit probably does, though it’s hard to tell since Kit speaks to me as little as possible and Fumiko’s name was never mentioned again after we left Japan anyway.
But I know Moe remembers Fumiko, and our father, and me—of course, me. Of course I remember Fumiko.
The Okinawa-bound plane hits an air pocket and belly-flops a few hundred feet. My seatmate, Tammi, grips my arm, digging her pearlized pink nails into my flesh. Tammi looks only slightly older than my sister Kit, who is seventeen. But Tammi is on her way to Okinawa so that her baby daughter, Brandi, can meet her father for the first time. The cabin lights flicker, and Tammi and I look to the front of the plane to see if the stewardesses are freaking in any manifest way.
“The pilot just rotated out of Nam.” Tammi has made this observation every time the plane wobbled for the past seventeen hours since we left Travis. The implication is that if a pilot is good enough to survive Vietnam, surely he can get a planeload of dependents, mostly wives and small children traveling Space Available, delivered safely to Okinawa.
Tammi looks the way my two sisters and three brothers, certainly my parents, expect me to look. A year ago, they’d left me behind at the University of New Mexico when my father was transferred to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. They’d said good-bye to a sister, a daughter, who set her Breck-washed hair into a flip on pink foam rollers. Who wore Villager blouses with coordinating pleated kilts held closed with an oversize gold pin above the knee. Who had a pair of tortoiseshell cat’s-eye glasses correcting her vision, a white-cotton circular-stitched brassiere shielding her breasts, Weejun loafers covering her clean feet, and Heaven Sent cologne perfuming her thoroughly deodorized and depilated self.
When I stepped off the plane they would behold a vagrant in Levi’s with peace-sign patches stitched to her ass and hems frayed to a dirty fringe from being trod upon by a pair of water-buffalo-hide sandals held on by one ring around the big toe. Who parted her straight hair in the middle and left it to hang lank as old drapes on either side of a groovy new pair of John Lennon wire rims. Who’d substituted patchouli oil for Wind Song perfume and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether.
For the past year, I had breathed civilian oxygen for the first time in my life. It caused me to forget that I was the daughter of Major Mason Patrick Root, just as much a representative of the United States as the serviceman himself. It caused me to join an antiwar group on campus, Damsels in Dissent.
I started to remember who I was at Travis Air Force Base, where I had to hang around reading The Confessions of Nat Turner while my request for a Space A flight worked its way through MATS. Just the acronyms for Space Available and Military Air Transport System were enough to resuscitate me with the air I’d inhaled for the past eighteen years. I was returning to a world where officer fathers lost their jobs when sons didn’t mow the lawn, when daughters dated GIs, or when mothers misbehaved too often at Happy Hour. Who knew what happened when offspring allied themselves with groups that advised draftees to swallow balls of tinfoil and put laundry detergent in their armpits to fool induction center doctors? As we fly deeper and deeper into a world that is entirely military, I push that question out of my mind even further than I bury the memory of Fumiko. I’ve long since finished with Nat Turner and, desperate for the narcotizing effect of moving my eyes across print, I start on the pamphlet again. I don’t get very far before lightning flashes outside the window. Almost simultaneously, thunder booms. Baby Brandi trembles, sucks her lip in, and wails. A crack of lightning explodes, and the clouds outside are illuminated in a battlefield flash of pale violet and gray. Finally, the clouds part, and far below there is, at last, some-thing visible in the darkness. Like a handkerchief tossed onto an endless field of mud, the island of Okinawa appears in the galaxy of black that is the night and the Pacific Ocean.
It seems impossible that they are all down there: my parents; Kit; the twins, Buzz and Abner; my little sister and brother, Bosco and Bob. It seems even more improbable that this plane is going to land on such a minute button of light.
Abruptly the plane slews to the side so violently that luggage bins pop open and diaper bags and duffels shoot into the air. All the babies and children cry. The stewardesses at the front are ashen-faced and stare at each other, wide-eyed, stricken. The smell of vomit, dirty diapers, and fear spikes through the cabin. The older stewardess speaks into a microphone. “Remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened.” She has on chalky lipstick that makes her teeth look yellow. She tries to get the younger stewardess up to help her stuff bags back into overhead bins, but the younger one shakes her head and tightens the belt holding her into her seat facing us. Seeing open fear on a stewardess’s face ignites panic in the cabin. The older one crimps her lips in disgust and wades into the aisle.
Lightning flashes continuously on all sides. A bolt crackles against the plane. Women scream as the thunder explodes. The older stewardess tries to speak through her microphone, but a roar of static is all that comes out.
Mascara-blackened tears streak Tammi’s cheeks.
The woman behind me begins to pant as if she were giving birth. Another woman sitting on the aisle turns in her seat and tells us in a weirdly conversational tone, “Pray, everyone, okay? Just pray to Jesus.”
But I am already praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She’s much more likely to be interested in a plane filled with mothers and children.
The plane bucks violently and the brave stewardess is thrown to the floor. The panting woman behind me screams like a sleeper trying to wake from the nightmare of her own death. Full-scale panic breaks out, with all the dependent wives and all their children sobbing and ululating like Berbers.
Tammi turns to me and, in a voice as calm as if she were reporting how much apples were selling for at the base commissary, tells me, “We’re going to die.”
On the plane, all noise and all smells stop. Next to me, Tammi’s face is red and squinched up from crying, but all I hear is the roar of an airplane’s engine. I look around and see the experienced stew fight to get to her feet and the woman who wanted us all to pray to Jesus snatch at her so she falls down again, but I hear nothing.
Once again, I am the overwrought, unhealthily imaginative child prone to nervous attacks and stomach disorders with a neurotic attachment to my mother and a dangerous dependence upon sugar that I was on my first trip over these waters, and I understand that we are seconds away from going down in a storm over the East China Sea.
Then all I am aware of is my longing to be back with my family, and in return I am suffused with the depth of their wounded longing for me.
They left me behind when I was seventeen, and I had not been ready. I was a pupa in the world without the exoskeleton they had always provided. I long for them, especially Moe. Always Moe. I grip the pamphlet about Okinawa in my hands and stare at it. But all I see are the words of the pamphlet I read that first time twelve years ago.
Dear Service Men and Women and Dependents:
As members of our Armed Forces stationed overseas, you and your dependents are representatives of the American people with the essential mission of building goodwill for our country.
Service men and women are the largest group of official U.S. personnel stationed in foreign countries. As a result, people form their personal attitudes toward our country and our American way of life to a great extent by what they see and hear about American service personnel and their dependents.
As you serve abroad, the respect you show foreign laws and customs, your courteous regard for other ways of life, and your speech and manner help to mold the reputation of our country. Thus, you represent us all in bringing assurance to the people you meet that the United States is a friendly nation and one dedicated to the search for world peace and to the promotion of the well-being and security of Nations.
Your President and Commander in Chief,
Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Bernie, put that down. Reading will make you start throwing up again.”
“I’ve got to. It’s required.”
“You don’t got to do nothin’, kiddo.” My mother snapped the pamphlet entitled “Welcome to Yokota Air Base” out of my hand and flopped onto the lower bunk next to mine. She untied the strings on her navy-blue gabardine skirt that held up the flap of cheap black cotton covering her pregnant belly and squirted on a fat pink plop of Baby Magic lotion. Red stretch marks ran like lava down the white mound heaved up by her third child. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” She huffed out a sigh and slathered the lotion around, covering acreage with the slapdash efficiency of a wallpaperer spreading paste. “This has got to be either twins or a baby mastodon. I sure wasn’t this huge with you or your sister.”
Moe glowed golden in the drizzle of illumination cast by the reading light embedded in the cabin’s riveted metal. Her hand described a Great Circle around her belly like the one we were following around the globe from San Francisco to Japan. In the boiler room next to our cabin on the S.S. President Wilson, pistons boomed loud as a Victorian factory. My stomach heaved in time to the rise and fall of the great ship on the midnight blue waves. I sat up, panting, saliva flooding my mouth.
“Moe, I don’t feel so good.” I never called my mother Mom or Mama. Like her friends, I always called her Moe, short for her maiden name, Mohoric. She called me Bernie, short for Bernadette.
“Here. Sip.” Moe reached across the narrow aisle separating the bunks to pass me a glass of warm 7UP, bending the accordion-crimped neck of the paper straw to my lips. As I sipped, she crushed a couple more Dramamine tablets between two spoons, added most of a packet of sugar, wet it with a few drops of 7UP pipetted up with the straw, and spooned it into me. “It’s all that reading. You’re too young to be reading so much. You should be out playing with other kids, exercising some muscle beside your brain.”
“Actually, the brain is not a muscle.”
Moe shook her head, then sagged back onto the bunk with a long sigh.
The trip had started with such promise. Our first night on board was spent bobbing peaceably in San Francisco Bay. We were summoned to dinner by a crewman in a white jacket tapping out three notes on a miniature xylophone. Our father was handsome in his white mess dress jacket, a Morse code of colored ribbons pinned on his chest, his hair dark and shiny as Dean Martin’s. Moe’s dark hair was pulled back by the silver combs he had bought her on their honeymoon in Cuba. The combs had shown off the slight droop at the top of Moe’s right ear where, when she was a premature baby, a stupid nurse laid her in the incubator wrong and her soft, unformed ear had creased forever. But the flap of turned-down ear is like a mark in a book, a page creased to call you back to the best part, which is Moe’s face. My mother is beautiful.
That night, the first night of our trip, as we sat in the dining room, Moe had been especially beautiful, her cheeks rosy with excitement. That the Air Force was sending her family, headed by a captain, overseas on a presidential luxury liner was a windfall she wanted us all to take full advantage of. “Order the sea scallops and parfait,” she’d told Kit and me.
My little sister, Kit, just turned five, exactly eleven months younger than me, had shaken her head no, whipping the long springy coils of blond hair against her cheeks to reject, as usual, any suggestion made by my mother. She’d insisted on mashed potatoes. Period. No gravy. No butter.
“Get the kid what she wants,” my father intervened.
Utterly seduced from the beginning by my mother’s vision of what life ought to be, I ordered the scallops and parfait. Moe and I shared conspiratorial glances with each bite. Then, that night, the S.S. President Wilsons mountainous boilers shuddered to life. The tendrils of paper streamers we’d thrown overboard to the crowd on the dock far beneath us snapped as the colossus slid, implacable as an iceberg, away from land. The instant the ship commenced teetering on the waves beyond the harbor, up, then down, I turned into a human snowglobe. My contents swirled nonstop for the entire twelve days we were at sea.
Kit, pronounced “a born sailor” by our father, loved it. The long voyage that debilitated me left her in rampaging health. Like our father, she fed on everything that sickened me: motion, change, attention, people. She rampaged through shuffleboard tournaments, splashed in the saltwater swimming pool that sloshed from side to side, rolling in time with the dark waves. She ordered Shirley Temples with extra cherries from the deck steward, Bunny-Hopped with our father, watched magic shows, and sat at the officer’s table while I lay in bed, the boiler hammering at my head, nibbling crackers and flat 7UP, struggling to keep peristaltic action moving downward.
I was indescribably grateful to my trampoline stomach. Each time my sister burst through the oblong-shaped door into our dark room to throw down the ribbon she had just won for leading the longest Bunny Hop line or cannonballing the most water out of the swimming pool, then raced back out to win the Best Smile contest, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and nestled more deeply into the sodden sheets. Not only had sea-sickness brought me to this paradise of unlimited time alone with Moe, it had won me a temporary reprieve from strangers, from outsiders. As a daughter of the military, it would not last long. All too soon there would be classrooms, buses, playgrounds, neighborhoods filled with strangers. There would be teachers who might be kind, might be cruel, would probably simply be perplexed by the new girl who would only stop crying when she was reading while her sister—nearly a whole year younger!—would have five little girls fighting to be her best friend before the bus, the bus, the B. U. S., had even halted at their stop the first day. “Here, give me a tug.” Moe propped herself up on her elbow, pivoted around, and stuck her toe out to me. I helped her pull off the rubberized tube of support stocking. Puffy purple worms of varicose vein throbbed on her leg.
Moe’s smell filled our cabin. I concentrated on picking out the odors to keep from throwing up: Baby Magic with its scent of celery and babies. An ammonia tang from the permanent she’d given herself back at the Travis Air Force Base BOQ, where we’d stayed before leaving. The funk of body-warmed rubber. Slung beneath all that was the hammock of her regular smell, the smoky mint odor of Kool menthol cigarettes, a light pretzelly sweat scent, and Joy perfume.
“Moe, what did you look like when you were a little girl?”
Moe pulled the flap of her skirt back up and studied me for a long moment before answering. “Me? Oh, I was a funny-looking runt. Like a wormy pup with my big tummy and spindly arms and legs. And my knees! What a mess! Covered in scabs because I couldn’t walk a foot without falling.”
“Look!” I pulled my spindly leg out from under the damp sheet and pointed to the bumper of scab on my knee.
“How about that?” Moe shook her head at the coincidence.
“What else?” I prompted eagerly.
Moe angled the reading lamp until its light fell on my face.
“Oh, dark circles under my eyes, from too much worrying and reading and not enough sleeping. And my hair! Had a mind of its own. Like a black cat caught in a rainstorm.”
This was miraculous information! Moe had looked just like me when she was little. I wanted to believe this so much I didn’t ask how spiky cat fur hair like mine could have ever turned into heavy Cleopatra hair like hers. Or how my raccoon-shadowed eyes could possibly have evolved into her dark-lashed wonders. Then I remembered and touched my badge of shame. “Yeah, but you didn’t have this.”
“I don’t see why you hate your widow’s peak.”
“Because it makes me look like Dracula.”
“You do not look like Dracula. It gives your face a wonderful heart shape. Vivien Leigh has a widow’s peak. All the great beauties have them.”
“So why did the kids back at Mather call me Dracula?”
“Because the kids back at Mather were congenital idiots.”
With no warning, preliminary retching sounds issued from my throat.
“Oh, brother, here we go again!” Moe lunged out of bed, grabbing the bowl on the floor. A bitter froth of Dramamine and bile came up. Even sitting up for that short a period caused my vision to drain downhill, leaving my head black. Moe grabbed me before I passed out and helped me lie back down. Her gray eyes passed across me, concerned, and for the first time I realized I was really sick. Not just faking it like I usually would to get out of the Bunny Hop and Best Smile Contest.
“You think this is crowded.” My mother laughed and my stomach eased at her tone, jaunty and confiding, as if she were answering some snappily hilarious comment that I, her daughter, the shyest six-year-old in the galaxy, had just made.
“You should have seen our room on the troopship over to Casablanca. No bigger than this, crammed with sixteen nurses, and fourteen of us seemed to have our period the whole way over.”
“Dotty Halpern, Mimsie Goldblatt, Becky Cohen, Jackie Friedman . . .” Moe lit a Kool and drew in, head tilted up, chin tipped out, in the movie-star way she had when she was inhaling memory. “Me and Caroline were the only shiksas in the crew.”
I had no more idea what a shiksa was than a period, but if that was what my mother was I could only assume it meant glamour babe.
“What a crew.” Moe laughed, shook her head, and, recalling the madcap group, made the clucking sound out of the side of her mouth that was her highest form of praise.
I rolled onto my side and snuggled in, slipping my hands in prayer position between my knees. This was my favorite position for my favorite activity, listening to Moe’s nurse stories.
“Those gals could make the best of a tough situation. Sixteen women cooped up in a stateroom made for a honeymoon couple? Damp underwear hanging down everywhere like vines in a tropical jungle? Never knowing when a U-boat would decide that you were going to be that day’s target practice? The unit that left just ahead of us was torpedoed. What a way to die: alone on the sea, engine oil flaming all around you.”
She took a drag and waved both the smoke and the image away, dismissing them with the words she used to take the curse off all vexations, “Machts nichts.” I repeated the magical words under my breath. Mox nix.
“We put it out of our minds. Had our CARE packages open before we left harbor. Shared everything: halvah, butter cookies, sour balls. Of course, I had my fudge. It wasn’t kosher, but that didn’t stop anyone. It was wartime. That was when I first started admiring the Hebrew faith. Those gals knew we were all in it together and we might as well just make the best of it. What wisenheimers. And we were singing all the time. Bigger bunch of ninnies you never saw.”
“Make designs, okay?”
She turned off the light and painted patterns in the darkness with the orange tip of her cigarette. Tracers of ack-ack fire arced through the night, zipping about in roller-coasting slides of light that blurred as the Dramamine dazed me back toward sleep. I thought I said the word “Sing,” but couldn’t be sure, as Moe seemed to start crooning before I could open my mouth. She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and I saw her with her fifteen girlfriends perched about in a jungle of damp underwear, all singing, all in it together, as they crossed the Atlantic headed for Casablanca. My mother’s throbbing, Judy Garlandesque voice and smell—earthy, rich with grown-up-lady pleasures and secrets—blended together. Her face was the moon, lit by comet flashes of a swirling cigarette, shining down on a perfect world.
The memory flashes past in seconds and I am again on a plane moments away from falling into the East China Sea.
“Boy, howdy.” The sound in the cabin returns. “Tell you what, better get our shocks checked out.” The pilot’s casual, folksy tone mocks our noncombatant terror. “Got a little bumpy back there. Stewardesses, if you will, prepare the cabin for landing. “It takes the Jesus woman a second to unloose the death grip she has on the older stewardess, whose face has turned the color of window putty. She straightens up and slings a few bags back into the overhead bins, slams them shut, and looks behind her. The aisle is clogged with disgorged bags. The veteran stew shakes her head and goes to the front of the cabin, where she sits stiffly next to her cowardly colleague.
My ears pop as we descend through shifting strata of clouds. Outside the window, Okinawa has grown only to the size of a white scarf and lightning still sizzles past the window. As we break through the cloud deck, though, my head fills with the smells of Baby Magic, Kool cigarettes, tangerines, caramelized sugar, honeysuckle, and Fumiko’s Young Pinkoo lipstick, and I no longer have the slightest doubt that we will land safely.