It’s been 20 years since he retired from the USAF. And when he does the math he’s stunned to realize it’s been another 20 since he drove the Alaska Canada Highway from Fairbanks to Dawson City and all the way to Sacramento to get married. It’s clear it’s a million years ago and yet every turn of the road is a returned memory –“it wasn’t this paved back then”…..”I don’t remember this blue lake, maybe it was night when I drove by”…”see how they are doing the construction, it was like that bottom layer.”
He takes a break from driving and giddily returns still trim enough to proudly fill out his old fatigues with the now-valuable and antique Strategic Air Command patch and the equally antique but not so valuable buck sergeant stripes. He was the last of the generations to wear those stripes (as was I) before they were retired decades before he qualified to do the same.
These Vietnam era fatigues were the working uniform for the majority of the USAF from the mid- 60’s through the early 80’s as all cotton, muted olive green. With their bright blue name and USAF stripes sewn over the chest pockets and colorful patches for different commands and functions, they called us canned pickles. The trouble with those fatigues was they wrinkled so very easily. And if you starched them enough to stand up in the corner at night they were unnatural both to look at and to wear. There was a happy medium somewhere between slouchy and uptight.
He still misses his time in the AF. Not everyone does. He’s not them. He still chooses his navy blue Retired US Air Force ball cap over most other options in the hallway closet. He’s proud of his learning curve and the degrees – both on paper and in common sense – he earned along the way. For sure he’s a better person because of his time in service to our country.
He doesn’t go looking for appreciation. Never did really. But he’s happy to stand at public ceremonies when they call for veterans to rise when their service is mentioned. “Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, flying high into the sun….”, he sings it standing next to anyone else who served on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.
He never did own a tuxedo. But he wears his mess dress uniform with 24 years worth of medals on his chest when it’s formal night on a cruise and with his bride by his side beaming proudly. And she’s the reason he wants to ride this highway again. To share the journey back in time to a place and a base when he was young and unattached and unburdened by too many obligations.
And I’m thrilled to join his journey. Both as a friend and as the grandmother of another buck sergeant-equivalent on the other end in the same place – 40 years later. Wearing a different fatigue uniform that looks like the desert and a different patch for new units with the same mission. I hope they can hear each other when they meet and spend a few days together.
For both of them.