November 9th, 2014
You haven’t written a letter in quite some time, several years at best. You haven’t written a letter since you were stationed on that Indian Ocean island paradise, Diego Garcia, in 2001, thirteen years ago. You wrote letters in longhand, on paper, back then: the internet and email had not quite penetrated your life as completely as they have today. Back then, and before then, all the way back to boot camp in 1977, letter writing presented a challenge: you never knew what to write. Let me re-phrase that: you never knew how to begin a letter. To at least start the letter you invariably began by saying you were doing fine. Great, now what? The weather came next, of course, then gratitude for the last letter you received, the big box of cookies tasted great – you passed them out to the folks in the maintenance workcenters and kept a bag for yourself and the Master Chief (send more) – and the latest news from Afghanistan and Iraq; the B-52s left Dodge fully loaded and returned hours later riding high on their struts; the B-1 bombers were sleek and beautiful. The aircraft came back broken. We fixed the broken aircraft. Geedunk run to Thailand. MedEvac to Singapore. The CO is an asshole. Please send new jogging shoes. Pleasantries, queries, concerns, love.
Writing never seemed much fun; instead, it felt like a chore. You wanted to write, but you didn’t want to write, but you knew you had to or you would upset Jayne and your sisters. I know that’s an awkward sentence, but it’s the plain truth: letter writing bored you to tears and you hated it, but you forced yourself to put pen to paper. You had to. You had an obligation. It was probably one of the marriage vows somebody snuck in when you weren’t listening because you were gazing into Jayne’s eyes. Jayne expected to hear often from you, her husband – her letters were always wonderful and informative, and she wrote at least once a week. Pink paper. Pink ink. Smile Willy: you smiled every time the postal clerk pulled that pink envelope from the mail bag. So did everyone else at mail call.
Your sisters were not regular letter writers but, still, they expected letters from their Sailor brother, their big brother, their only brother. They depended on you for that parental love they missed after mom and dad passed away, for the familiar handwriting that reminded them of mom’s or dad’s, for that certain unmistakable tone of voice of yours that they recalled through your letters, and for that home-like atmosphere you had the unique ability to convey in your letters, the atmosphere that took them back to mom’s cooking, dad’s recliner in front of the television, playing scrabble, The Wonderful World of Disney.
Distance has always separated you from those you loved and those who loved you. While the rest of the family went about their lives in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, you went about the nation’s business around the world: every sea, every continent, every war. You experienced the pain of seeing shipmates die; you witnessed the joy of shipmates seeing their babies for the first time; you experienced revolutions violent and peaceful; you walked around bloodied, bloated bodies in the streets and carried the bloodied but living to safety. You supplied power, food, and water to the homeless in disaster areas. You built orphanages and medical aid stations; you helped deliver a baby one time and you wept at its beauty.
Distance made the miles even dearer to those who loved you and those whom you loved. Thousands of miles separated you from your loved ones so they did not know of these things unless you told them through your letters. Some things you wrote down, some you didn’t, some you couldn’t, but loved ones always wanted to know what you did in the Navy, where you were, how you were, what you were doing. They needed that fat envelope more than you needed theirs. You didn’t understand that at the time. You do now. You understand the anxiety they felt when they read the newspapers or heard the breaking news and wondered if you were in that danger zone, that typhoon, that earthquake, that damaged ship, that aircraft mishap. A parent’s and sibling’s love and concern for the welfare of a Sailor. When you felt you absolutely had to get word to mom and dad, or Jayne, you could always pick up the phone and call. But, even calling by phone seemed such a chore. Even that bored you.
What it really comes down to is you felt you were wasting time letter-writing or phoning home. You always seemed to have something more important to do than write or call home. And that impatience could be felt by mom and dad, Jayne and your sisters. Your clipped sentences, short answers, long pauses must have been dead giveaways. You still do it – when you take the time to call – which is rare. But nothing is more important than communicating regularly with your loved ones. Memories are built from letters and phone calls. Precious is the time that is spent composing a letter, reflecting on the words you want to write, the thoughts and feelings you wish to convey and evoke. Throughout your entire career, people wanted to know what their Sailor was doing because what you were doing was important and your family felt great pride in you. Once again, Willy, you didn’t understand that then, but you do now. Letter writing and phone calls home bored you and made you feel like you were wasting time. How ironic, then, that the last words your mother and you spoke to one another were by telephone, just moments before the cancer took her life. Phone your sisters, Willy, they need to hear your voice.
Will Pennington retired from the U.S. Navy in 2006 after twenty-seven years of enlisted and officer service in Naval Aviation. Prior to joining the Navy, he followed his parents around the world while his dad served in the Air Force. Will’s parents nurtured his lifelong love affair with literature and writing; his mother rose early on Sunday so she could beat Will to the crossword puzzle. Dad didn’t mind as long as the rest of the paper remained unwrinkled. Today, Will works with Navy Acquisition programs in Washington, DC and devotes his spare time to writing, including articles for various periodicals, and essays depicting his observations of life throughout the world as an Air Force brat and career Sailor. Born in Ankara, Turkey, Will calls Tampa, Florida his hometown but lives now in Saint Leonard, Maryland with his wife, Jayne Michiko Ono and their three Great Dane/Labs, Tobi, Yoshi, and Yukio.
Will blogs at: http://willpenny.wordpress.com/
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