For Part 1 in this series, click here.
When you’re married to the military, you form friendships that last forever, no matter how much time or distance separates you from these friends. In our very surreal year at Mather AFB in Sacramento, California, we met Chris, the first of many good friends we made in the military. Chris was the quintessential dignified southern gentleman, a bit formal in manner and reserved (most of the time) in speech. He was also a bit older than most of the guys at Undergraduate Navigator Training and infinitely more mature.
We spent a lot of time with Chris because he was so much fun and so not a part of the JOC-Night ethos of navigator training I found so uncomfortable. George and I sat at the table a few weeks ago and reminisced about good times spent with Chris. Most of the stories and snippets of memory involved a healthy dose of laughter. Chris had a wonderfully self-deprecating and dry sense of humor that snuck out at odd moments. For instance, we were all watching television one night when a commercial for Rogaine came on. Chris, who was prematurely balding, muttered, completely deadpan, “Doesn’t work.”
He could also spin a funny story with himself as the butt of the joke. Our favorite—the one that always pops to mind whenever we’re discussing Chris—is the xylophone story.
Chris grew up in a very musical family, so when he went to high school, he realized the cool kids who played instruments played in the marching band. Being far too dignified to want to dance around with a trombone or saxophone, he quickly noticed that the percussionists spent practice sitting under a tree while everyone else rehearsed dorky dance moves in the blazing Georgia sun. Being a smart young man, Chris wanted to be with the drummers hanging out in the shade. The only percussion instrument not already taken, however, was the xylophone.
The xylophone had to be firmly strapped onto him and didn’t come off easily. So when he had the luxury to sit in the shade while the rest of the band practiced dance moves, Chris had to kneel with the xylophone resting on his lap, hunching over to take the strain off his shoulders.
Yeah, that really impressed the girls.
Then, there was the day trip to San Francisco, during which Chris almost got us shot at the Army’s beautiful Presidio Officers’ Club by asking, loudly, “How do the grunts rate this?” Well-mannered southern gentlemen simply don’t say things like that, and the incongruity still makes me giggle. But not in front of Army officers.
George and I had the same favorite day in 1988. We went with Chris to Lassen National Park to hike. It was a gorgeous California day, sunny and not too hot. We had backpacks loaded with water and sunscreen, and were wearing comfortable walking shoes. We took our time enjoying the scenery as we climbed Mt. Lassen and poked around the volcano’s caldera, with whiffs of brimstone adding spice to the adventure. We also made condescending comments about a group of sunburned Mennonites who had hiked the mountain without water and wearing terrible shoes.
Never, ever make condescending comments about Mennonites. They may not believe in karma, but karma believes in them.
We’d drunk all the water we brought by the time we got down from Mt. Lassen and should have headed home, but a friend had recommended the Bumpass Hell trail, which was supposed to be fairly short so we did it without water. Bumpass Hell has bubbling mud pots and a much stronger odor of brimstone than the caldera, and the hike was longer than anticipated. Much longer. The three of us death marched out of Bumpass Hell feeling parched and hot.
Karma really is a bitch.
Then we got lost trying to drive out of the park. Remember, there were no Tom-Toms in 1988, and I was with two navigators-in-training. Combine these two facts with our dose of bad karma, and we were destined to get lost. All we wanted was a restaurant to drink gallons of water and eat something that didn’t make us feel sick, but the one place we found in the park was, of course, closed. I don’t remember the meal we eventually found, but I do remember the time in the car because Chris proposed a game in which one person starts a story and passes it off to another person who adds to the story and then passes it on. This was an excellent distraction from our dehydration headaches and general frustration.
Our first oral-tradition epic included a mystery that took our detective to Big Al’s Nudist Colony and Farm Cooperative. It would have been a best-seller if we’d written it down, but now, 21 years later, all I remember is Big Al’s Nudist Colony and Farm Cooperative, which Chris cleverly contributed to the story line. Our second oral epic devolved into a bad episode of Miami Vice, but it carried us, exhausted, all the way home. Genius needed its sleep.
When we compared notes the next day over lunch, however, it turned out none of the three of us got any sleep because we all had horrible sunburns on our necks and ears and the backs of our legs. Lying on a pillow with blisters forming on your neck hurts. A lot. Sunscreen doesn’t work well when it stays in the backpack all day and never touches your skin.
Isn’t it amazing how three smart, college-educated young adults can be so unprepared and plain ol’ stupid? Honestly, it’s moments like this that remind me how incredibly lucky we are to have survived as a species.
You might be wondering why George and I both remember this day so fondly, given the extreme discomfort of dehydration headaches and sunburns, but when you go through a day like that with a good friend, the memory of companionship definitely trumps the discomfort.
Today, Chris runs his own cockpit resource management company and is happily married to Ruth, who teaches English as a second language and keeps everyone laughing with her own delightfully warm sense of humor. They have two talented daughters who were kind enough to dress my elder son in a medieval gown to sing karaoke while I snapped pictures during a visit to their home in 2005. These pictures will be extremely useful when Nick is a teenager.
Old friends come in handy for the darnedest things, don’t they?