My darling husband definitely qualifies for the title Greatest Dad Ever. Some dads never get their priorities straight, but George got it right from the beginning. When I was pregnant with Nick, one of George’s squadron mates asked him what he wanted our baby boy to be when he grew up. George was astounded that anyone would burden an unborn child with such expectations. As George expressed his outrage over this, I smiled that little, complaisant smile only gestating women can produce. I’d chosen the father of my children well.
The baby years were hard for George, as they are for many dads. Women usually spend more time caring for babies and have floods of estrogen making them baby crazy anyway; consequently, they are often more comfortable with the whole baby phase of parenting. George didn’t want me to leave him alone with either boy for very long when they were small for fear of what would happen if the little one developed an obsessive, immediate need for the booby-lady. I suspect his enthusiastic support of breast feeding had less to do with the benefits to baby and more to do with the fact that it got him off the hook for middle-of-the-night feedings.
George was happier spooning pureed carrots into reluctant mouths, making silly faces, throwing babies up in the air (gently, of course), and very occasionally changing a diaper by himself. While I did the majority of baby care, George brought home the bacon as an officer in the United States Air Force. He flew in the B-1 bomber, moved up in the ranks of squadron administration, worked 12-18 hour days, and even went off to war in a sandy, uncomfortable place.
On his first day back from Iraq, we went to Target to get some necessities. Nick was three, and acted every minute of it. By the time we walked into the store, George looked at me with something akin to awe and said, “How did you do this for four months by yourself?” I do so love being acknowledged.
Basically, the early years are the Mommy Years: I was booby-lady, food lady, hugs-and-kisses lady, snuggle-lady...in short, Queen of Baby’s Universe. As soon as our boys were old enough, however, George transformed from That Guy Who Takes Too Much of Mommy’s Attention Away From Me into Super-Duper Extraordinary Playmate, also known as The Monster. Every evening after dinner, George pretends to be a monster, gets on the floor and wrestles with the boys, throws them around, yells, and generally makes them screamingly happy. He lets the boys lay on the hardwood floor with their hands wrapped around his ankles and drags them around (less mopping for me), he picks them up by their ankles and pretends to drop them on their heads, he tosses them over his shoulder and “spanks” them while they laugh hysterically. In fine weather, he plays dodge ball with them in the back yard.
Where am I during all this, you ask? I am usually in my craft room with the door closed and the fan set on high to drown out the noise. Mommy doesn’t “do” this sort of play. I sit in our home library and read to them, play Yahtzee with Nick or Candyland with Jack or indoor bowling with them both, and help them do homework and craft projects. Children need adult males in their lives for the rough and tumble play that they all (even the girls) need. They don’t usually get it from momma.
While the boys will have lasting memories of this playmate daddy, the most meaningful thing George has done for them is something they may never know, much less fully understand.
Two years ago, George had orders to go to his dream job as an instructor at the B-1 Weapons School. For those who don’t know, the Weapons School is sort of like a super-concentrated PhD program in weapons and tactics. It’s the place the Air Force trains its top aviators to “fly, fight, and win,” and graduates, called patch-wearers, are expected to pass on what they learn when they return to their squadrons. Weapons School is intense—six months of ridiculously long days full of study, flying, and brutal briefs and debriefs for each flight. Mistakes are not tolerated. Plenty of students wash out before they can complete the course, and they don’t get a second chance.
George went through the B-1 Weapons School in 2000 and graduated with the flying trophy. When he sent out feelers for an instructor job in late 2005, the Weapons School’s commander couldn’t wait to get him to Abilene. George’s orders came through, we put our house on the market, and I prepared to move for the tenth time in 18 years to Dyess AFB, in Abilene, Texas.
As George’s dream was coming true, we began to suspect that Jack, who was not quite four, might have a problem. His speech seemed delayed, and he just wasn’t keeping up with his peers in social interactions or fine-motor development. We had him evaluated by a developmental pediatrician, Dr. Zernzach, at Wright Patterson AFB hospital. My mother took Jack to this evaluation because George and I were in British Columbia celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. Dr. Zernzach called us while we were having lunch at a winery on Saturna Island. A bald eagle flew gracefully overhead, and acres of tidy grape vines stretched down to the blue-gray sea sparkling with sunlight as I heard what no parent ever wants to hear: our son had serious developmental delays that required much more testing and might possibly be autism.
George immediately started asking critical questions about the suitability of moving Jack to Abilene. I was totally focused on the move and probably in a bit of denial as well. He had me call the base hospital at Dyess AFB to ask what services Jack could receive there. The answers were not good. The nearest developmental pediatrician was in Ft. Worth (almost three hours from Abilene), and pediatric speech therapy and occupational therapy had huge waiting lists. We already knew the schools in Abilene were not very good. I tried to be positive and optimistic, but George already knew what he had to do.
When George and I met with Dr. Zernzach, the seriousness of Jack’s situation finally hit me. I listened while George and the doctor discussed the Exceptional Family Member Program, which ensures that military families with special needs are assigned only to bases where these needs can be met. George signed the paperwork to enroll Jack in the EFMP. Just hours after Dr. Zernzach submitted the paperwork the following day, George received an email canceling the orders to his dream job.
Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate the character of a man who would, without hesitation, give up his dream job for a son who hadn’t even been formally diagnosed yet. Sorta makes you feel there’s hope for the world after all, doesn’t it?
A year later, it became obvious that George was destined for a year-long deployment to either Baghdad or a garden spot in Afghanistan. Before Nick was born, he would have gone eagerly, but a year’s absence would definitely hurt our two small boys. I wouldn’t have been too happy about it either. George just couldn’t leave his family for so long, especially under the circumstances, so he submitted his retirement paperwork and started looking for a civilian job. He was snapped up by the first company to interview him.
At his retirement ceremony, George said he’d been advised by a friend, “Run out of career before you run out of family.” He didn’t want to retire from the Air Force, from the band of rare Americans who are willing to lay down their lives for something bigger than themselves. He simply realized that two little boys needed his time, his presence, and his love more than America did.
His life is slower now than perhaps he would like. The adrenaline-rush thrill of jet engines and combat and streaking beyond the speed of sound at 400 feet above the ground in a big, sleek B-1 can’t be replaced by work in military consulting. The unique camaraderie that bonds aviators after surviving triple-A and missiles over downtown Baghdad doesn’t develop when you’re sitting in meetings with civilians. And let’s face it, an Air Force flight suit accessorized with a leather flight jacket, flight cap, and sunglasses will always look and feel cooler than a suit and tie.
George did the noblest thing a man can do. He spent the first 20 years of his adult life serving his country in a dangerous job, sacrificing his freedom so others might enjoy theirs. A year ago, he sacrificed a career doing what he loved just to be present and accounted for daily with his children. You know, I think he actually looks pretty darn cool in that suit and tie.
Nick and Jack don’t ever need to know what George gave up for them, but their lives are immeasurably better because they have a dad who understands that pretending to be a monster every night is the single most important job any real man can have.
Yes, I chose the father of my children well.