In one of the letters he sent Mama from Nam, Daddy referred to their first date: “I remember when I took some good looking girl to the carnival in Kingsport. Do you remember?” The letter arrived shortly after Daddy died. In that same letter, he teased Mama with the following note: “It sounds like Frankie is learning to get around there the same as he does everywhere. Tell him to watch out for those city girls around there for that is where one of them caught me. Ha!”
Mama dropped out of the ninth grade after the first two weeks of school. Five months later, on February 13, 1954, the eve of Valentine’s Day, my parents married. Mama was five months pregnant with Frankie.
Daddy had been talking about reenlisting in the Army for months. On January 8, 1954, he signed up for a three-year stint. Daddy was due to report to his station at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on Valentine’s Day. Mama stayed in Rogersville with her parents until Frankie was born on June 16, 1954. Daddy wasn’t there for Frankie’s birth, but he arrived in Rogersville later that evening. Mama moved to Fort Campbell with Daddy when Frankie was a couple of weeks old.
From that moment on, Mama was a military wife. Her independent streak came in handy whenever she was required to pack up and move kids and caboodle on short notice. She made sure we had up-to-date shots for overseas travel, kept our school records in order, and learned the quickest route for finding new dentists, new friends, and new churches. She mowed the lawn, starched Daddy’s uniforms, and made sure Grandpa Harve had an ample supply of cigarettes nearby.
After Granny Ruth died, Grandpa Harve moved in with us. Mama’s daddy was disabled. A stroke had rendered his left side useless. He could walk with the aid of a cane, but it was a slow step-shuffle. His speech was equally lopsided. But Daddy always took the time to converse with Grandpa. They were good buddies. They would sit on the porch or under a mimosa tree, drinking cups of black coffee, passing cigarettes and matches and stories between them.
When Daddy got called up for a second tour of duty in Korea, Mama birthed and raised Linda alone for the first fifteen months.
“I called a taxi to take me to the hospital when I went into labor with Linda,” Mama recalled. “I didn’t have anybody else I could call to help me out.”
She left Frankie and me with a girlfriend while she delivered our baby sister without anyone by her bedside. Nobody brought her flowers. Nobody threw her a baby shower. Mama just went about her business, tending to our family’s newborn, Frankie and me.
Mama liked being the soldier’s wife. She would dress us up and parade us around base on Armed Forces Day or the Fourth of July. She enjoyed dancing at the NCO club, with Daddy’s hands clasped about her waist. It was fine with Mama that other men referred to her as “Sergeant Spears’s wife.” That’s the only title she’d ever envisioned for herself.
All her friends were other military wives. They didn’t care who had an uppity education and who didn’t. They were focused on raising their kids the best way they could, making sure they didn’t miss out on the deals at the commissary, and looking ahead to where their husbands’ next assignments might be. They got together to sew school clothes, to drink a pot of coffee, for pool parties or the occasional dinner out.
Mama had never been a career woman. She didn’t even know any women who were, other than our schoolteachers. She knew some women who worked at diners or Dairy Queens to make ends meet, but if their husbands had made better salaries, they wouldn’t have done that. As capable as she was, the thought of providing for her family terrified Mama. She loved Daddy. She needed him. She couldn’t imagine life without him. Such a life held no promises, only guaranteed sorrows.
“Nobody really knows how alone I really was then,” Mama told me years later.
Perhaps not. But Nita Thorne had some idea of how alone she might feel it she’d been in Mama’s shoes. Nita was one of the wives Mama befriended while Daddy was stationed in Hawaii. Nita’s husband, Hank, was a good friend of Daddy’s. They served in the same unit at Schofield and in Vietnam – Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 9th Artillery, 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division.
Daddy and Thorne were cannon cockers. Daddy, a staff sergeant, was known as “chief of smoke” because he led the firing battery. Thorne was operating the cannon when Daddy died. Thorne, who was still on active duty in Vietnam, sorely wanted to accompany my father’s body home, but his request was turned down. Nita and her two children were living in Alabama.
Mama sat on the edge of the bed, her head downcast, tears streaming down her face as she pressed the black-handled phone against her ear, grasping for the comfort Nita offered her. Nita told Mama she was coming to Tennessee. Mama said it wasn’t necessary, but Nita and the kids came anyway, and stayed until after Daddy was buried.
Retreating to my room, I scrawled a note to the only other person I thought would care, Mrs. Eye, my former teacher at Helemano Elementary School. The writing helped. I had to quit crying so I could concentrate on my cursive. I think that letter was the first time I used writing as a tool to bring order to chaos. I don’t know exactly what I wrote that day, but I know I told Mrs. Eye about my father’s death and the bulldog puppy whimpering outside the trailer door. I also told her how Mama’s crying frightened me.
After placing the letter in my Bible, I curled up on my bed and wept until I fell asleep. As best as I could figure out, if Daddy was dead, that meant he wouldn’t be coming home. Not for my birthday. Not for Christmas. Not ever.
The night before Granny Ruth died in July 1962, Mama opened a box of Toni home-permanent kit and rolled my hair up in scratchy pink curlers with itsy white tissue papers. Then she poured nasty-smelling stuff all over my head. It ran down my face. Thankfully, Mama had given me a washcloth to hold over my eyes. When she took the rollers out, my hair balled up all wiry, like a scouring pad that had been used to clean up the fried chicken skillet.
I hoped Daddy’s death wouldn’t cause Mama to get out the Toni box again.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of After the Flag has been Folded.