John Metzger, Air Force Family Member
As a boy, I thought a lot about war. It was a romantic type of thinking that goes along with building model fighter jets and green army men facing tanks and artillery of plastic. But when my father, an Air Force Major, went away for over a year, he did not go to fight a war. He was assigned TDY (temporary duty assignment) to Seoul, Korea and told me he would not be home for my birthday or Christmas. He said that I would have to be the man of the house and look after my mother and my three sisters. But I was only nine years old. We lived in the suburbs of Austin, Texas not far from Bergstrom Air Force Base and leased a ranch a few miles out from there. He said that I would have to take care of things and make sure the horses got fed and that they were ridden often.
“If you don’t ride them they get un-broken, hard to manage, and fat.”
He also said that we would have to mow the grass, help out around the house, and do all the things he normally did. My family worked and worked hard—the archetype of the military family. When most families in my neighborhood enjoyed leisurely Saturdays and Sundays, we were up early tackling chores in siege-like fashion. If a friend came over, he worked or was sent home. My family labored and no one was finished until all work was done. But most of this labor did not fall on my sisters and me. Instead, it was my mother, the military wife, the dependent who shouldered the burden of these responsibilities while the Major was away in Korea.
“You will have to be the man of the house, son. You will have to look after your sisters and your mother.”
But I really did not know what it meant to be the “man of the house.” The day after his plane left I marched up and down our driveway with my air rifle, guarding the house. I assumed this is what the Major meant. Yet, I was free. I was free to do as I liked as I had never been. I was a latchkey kid. When I got off the bus I had no adult supervision until my mother’s long day brought her home. I disappeared into the woods behind the suburbs and was often late to dinner. I was free. But for over a year my mother, the dependent, had no freedom. She worked as a teacher and then spent the rest of her day shuttling her four children around to soccer practice, dance, piano, volleyball, and teacher/parent conferences.
What I remember most from that year was the way my mother tried very hard to do “man-stuff” with her only son. I am certain that on at least one call from Korea, the Major, concerned that his only son might go soft in a household full of women, requested that my mother do “guy-stuff” with her son. Or maybe it was my mother’s idea. Maybe she saw her son drifting away without a father. She might have seen it as that important time in a boy’s life when male mentoring is so important. So my mother made a genuine effort to do the kinds of things with her son that a father might do. Each of her attempts were heroic.
For example, on a warm Texas summer morning, as the sun was just beginning to peak above the rooftops of the suburbs, my mother roused me from bed. She did not wake my three sisters, but made quick work of breakfast and we were off to the ranch.
The longhorn bull, known as Crazy, was no longer in his corral. His time at the ranch was over. My mother, having learned this, was determined to fill her garden with fresh manure from the pen. My mother’s final household request of my father before he left for Korea was that he build a raised garden in our yard in the suburbs. It was constructed of treated landscape timbers and stretched the length of the backyard, but was only a few feet wide. In the garden my mother would plant tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, squash, and zucchini. However, when my father’s plane departed for Korea the garden was empty. This would be her project, she said.
On that morning, with the Texas heat rising in waves off the hills, I unlatched the gate and my mother backed the truck into Crazy’s pen. With sweat already beading on her face, my mother was beaming. “Look at all this great fertilizer!”
It was really hot.
“Start shoveling,” she said.
We worked in herculean fashion and only took breaks to drink some water and rest our backs. By the time the truck was full, we both had bad blisters on our hands, despite the nominal protection of some well-worn, old work gloves. We were tired and our clothes were soaked with sweat. I did not ask my mother why my sisters were not made to come out and work. I knew this was our time. She wanted me to do this kind of work. This was her way of being a father and doing things a father would do with his son.
When she backed the truck into our driveway in the Austin suburbs several of the neighbors were outside and stole glances our way. But once the smell hit them they waved their hands in front of their noses and politely retreated inside. I directed my mother as she maneuvered the truck and slalomed between live oak trees around to the back yard and her garden. My mother inched the truck along as we shoveled the finest manure ever to grace a garden in our neighborhood.
By lunchtime the noon Texas sun was baking down and Crazy’s black gold permeated the neighborhood in high fashion. Several neighbors complained, I was told. But nothing mattered to her that day. My mother was proud. She had her garden. My father was thousands of miles away, but we were doing just fine. The dependent had her garden and that spring when the strawberries were ripening, the neighbors all marveled at how wonderful it was.
John Metzger was a dependent whose father served as an officer in the United States Air Force from 1968-1988. His family moved every single year for eight years. During this time his father was stationed at various Air Force bases. For a period of a year, the Metzger household was without a father due to an oversea assignment in Osan, Korea. John is an English instructor at Cape Fear Community College.