Marching into the Sun

By Katie Berger

think I’ll join the Air Force,” my brother Mike said one day six months ago. “It’d be like a video game, but with really good graphics.”

No one said anything. Mike had, over the years, threatened to join a pirate ship, a motorcycle gang, and a railroad crew whenever he was fed up with our small town’s overabundance of nothing. He often referred to the quiet, tree-lined streets as “The Wasteland,” especially in winter when the snow made them all look the same. He found his escape in too much candy from the gas station and many, many hours of fondling the buttons on his XBox. He’d never seen a body of water larger than a farm pond. He’d never been out of the Central time zone.

Now I find myself in San Antonio, Texas at Lackland Air Force Base for his boot camp graduation.

Lackland sits in the southwest corner of San Antonio, far from the Alamo, River Walk or any other iconic destinations. Here, the Walgreens, gas stations and numerous motor inns hunker down with the scrubby bushes and cling to the edges of US Highway 90. The relentless sunlight has washed all painted buildings into the same faded color as the land.

The guards at the entrance to Lackland wave my car through. I’m struck by how much this section of the base resembles Bedrock, Fred Flintstone’s hometown. The squat, single story buildings consist mainly of concrete, and they sit in patches of sub-tropical green foliage. I half expect a brontosaurus to come ambling up Truemper Street, but the constant whir of the sprinklers reminds me this greenness is forced by humans.

Recruits in blue uniforms march along nearly every patch of sidewalk like ants. Even when walking alone, they glide with a rigid, robotic gait of military uniformity.

I stop many of the recruits, rolling down my window and asking them how to reach the parade grounds, the site of Mike‘s graduation. I receive a lot of slow “ma’am”s, toothy smiles and warm congratulations on my brother’s accomplishment. One recruit, decked out in military issue eyeglasses that could melt a small insect in the warm San Antonio sun, talks with such enthusiasm I half expect him to hop in the car with me, tell a few jokes and adopt me as his own older sister.

The recruits are all crisp blue, smiley and courteous to the point of creepiness, but no one knows anything. Few know a parade grounds exist. Many gesture in random directions, throwing their arms one way, then the other as they desperately try to help.

I’ll learn later that Lackland Air Force Base is the only basic training facility in the entire Air Force. Lackland also houses five technical training facilities, the schooling an airman receives after boot camp. Boot camp lasts for a mere six weeks, tech school just over twelve. Most airmen at Lackland call it home for six to eighteen weeks. I’ve stumbled into a land of perpetual transience, confusion and homesickness.

I find the parade grounds myself, following the stream of mothers and fathers in dress slacks and skirts to the bleachers. Lined with wooden, scaled-down models of different fighter jets, the parade grounds are about the size of a standard football field.

A low, thick voice over the PA system announces each training squadron as it enters the grounds. All of them march with a chilling, focused precision. They are marching bands with neither instruments nor pep.

I realize I’ve forgotten the number of Mike’s squadron. I thought it was 332, but that number was never called. I start scanning every face. Shaved heads peek out from under a sea of blue caps. Most faces are shrouded by the goggle-like glasses I saw on the friendly recruit earlier. The man on the PA explains that Lackland hosts a graduation like this nearly every Friday. 400 to 500 recruits graduate per week, 38 thousand per year. I feel like I’m standing at the exit doors of a giant assembly plant. Mike has to be in there somewhere.

“I, having been appointed a cadet in the United States Air Force,” the PA system drones.

The recruits reply with the exact same phrase, a choir of uniform shouting. I’d call their response feral, but the biting precision of the words suggests a machine gun, not a wild animal.

“…do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

The response grows louder. The woman seated next to me snaps her camera again and again, the little battery whirring in my ear.

“…that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”

For a split second, I think I see Mike among the crowd but change my mind.

“…that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…”

Somehow a golden retriever has wandered onto the field, sniffing playfully at everyone’s shoes. I try to laugh, but his golden coat against all that blue looks almost like an eyesore, an inconsistency in these perfect lines of men and women.

“…and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office of which I am about to enter! So help me God!”

The crowd surges to its feet in a single movement, and I’m there too, clapping wildly and still searching among the faces for Mike. I’ve yet to spot him. He could be anyone, so I stare at a random airman and let my eyes well up with tears. The warm kind, full of pride and hope.

The airmen are not allowed to move from their positions on the field until a family member taps them on the shoulder. The crowd has descended the bleachers and combs the lines for their children. Most stand too closely, examining each face like a specimen.

The flicker of something familiar winks at the corner of my vision, but it’s not Mike. It’s the face I punched as a child. The face I forced to eat sand from the gulch near our house. The face I directed insults at the way I would a dart to a target. Because it endured so much, this face leaked tears easily, grew posy pink and scrunched up like a piece of paper. That’s the face I see now. Not Mike’s face, exactly, but a face out of the past, a face from the cloudy corners of my childhood. What is it doing here?

But it is Mike. I run toward him, nearly knocking over a lady with a huge, floral purse. Before I can reach him, he turns his tear-dirtied, flushed face away from me and points at a spot on his arm.

It’s his insignia, with a wing protruding from each side. From television and movies, I’m accustomed to seeing the Air Force star surrounded by numerous wavy lines, the ranks piled on actors’ arms as they recite their lines in a commanding, brave voice. Mike’s single pair of wings looks pathetic, almost funny.

“I did it,” he says, wiping his nose on the palm of his hand. He’s both caressing and abusing the star on his arm, digging his finger into its threads yet holding it as if it’s a precious gem.

Mike’s allowed to leave the base for the day, so we go back to the motel. As soon as I unlock the door, he pushes past me and begins rummaging in my cosmetics bag. He pulls out a small bottle of peach essence body spray and nearly empties the bottle on the inside of his jacket.

“You’re going to smell like a girl,” I say.

“It’s better than a manly stink.”

Now we’re standing on the balcony. Highway 90 hums mere feet from us, but the birds manage to yammer over it. They sound tropical, like the sound effects that begin abruptly when an adventurer in an old movie enters the jungle. A creature that resembles a tiny deer skitters under a parked car, and it takes me several moments to figure out it’s a jack rabbit. I’ve never seen one in the wild before. We’re still in the Central time zone, but we’re very far from home.

Mike’s crouched down, rubbing at a spot on his slick black shoes. He licks his finger and tries again, his arm moving at a frantic pace.

“Have you made the right choice?” I blurt, then wince. Before stepping on the plane to San Antonio, I told myself I was proud of Mike, regardless of his decision. I would not question it. But I just have.

“Of course.”

Mike’s lied to me over the years about everything from my mysteriously dismantled Barbie dolls to my equally mysterious missing boom box. His voice catches slightly when he lies. He fails to make eye contact. He rubs at his nose.

The face I’m looking at now is staring right back at me, and his hands are perfectly still.

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. I try to smile at this honest, sincere face I no longer recognize.

He starts to talk. He tells me in his third week of boot camp he started sleepwalking, standing at attention at the foot of his bed all night. He chipped a tooth. Someone stole his phone card. He attended the Wiccan church service on Sundays because one of his friends was Wiccan but afraid to go alone.

“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he says, examining the position of the pins on his shirt pocket. “It’s just some crazy lady rattlin’ on about nature.”

I smile. I’ve just witnessed a flicker of the same Mike who called our hometown “The Wasteland” in winter and regularly threatened to join a pirate ship. Behind his perfectly buckled belt and shiny black shoes, he’s still Mike. For the first time, I realize the bushes on the motel terrace are in full, yellow bloom in the end of October, and the balmy, warm wind doesn’t have a hint of winter in it. This is no “wasteland,” even if all I can see is a gas station and a Denny’s.

I take Mike back to the base. I’m allowed to walk with him until he reaches the foot bridge over Truemper Street. Lackland is covered in foot bridges, and this particular one arches so steeply it looks as if the recruits are marching straight into the sun, stepping easily into a fiery alien world that could be the fraction of a twirl on a classroom globe.

“Well…” Mike says slowly, and, without warning, he turns on his heel and begins his stilted, wooden march over the bridge. He melts perfectly into the landscape, looking like any other airman.

It is late 2006. When I questioned his decision, my mind secretly lingered on the other side of the globe where servicemen and women are killed each day in Iraq; looking ahead, the US military death toll will pass 3,000 by the end of the year, over 4,000 by March 2008. My nightmares have crackled with Mike getting shot, Mike getting blown up, even Mike angering an enemy with his smart mouth and name calling.

But he’s made the right decision. He told me himself, with no hesitation in his voice or close examination of his feet. He has not lied to me.

I have to make up for it, but he’s disappearing over the bridge, turning into little more than a receding dot. I begin waving my hands so frantically I’m either going to take flight among the Air Force supply planes buzzing above me or break my wrists. I feel like an idiot, hopping and flapping my arms. I hope he can see me.

But he just keeps marching.

___

Katie Berger is a graduate student in The University of Alabama’s MFA in creative writing program. Her poems, essays, and articles have appeared in The Broken Plate,NEBRASKAland, In Other Words, Plains Song Review, among others.


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