Below is the first chapter from The Magical Stranger, Stephen Rodrick’s memoir about his father, squadron commander and Navy pilot Peter Rodrick. Our thanks to Rodrick for sharing it with the Longreads community.
* * *
In an airless stateroom aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, I find my dead father.
Somewhere off the Vietnamese coast, the roar of an F/A-18 Hornet shot from the carrier’s number two catapult blasts me awake. Pilots learn to sleep through the bash and rattle of launches and recoveries. But I’m not a pilot, just a reporter, a tourist by another name.
Now, my father was a pilot. He could sleep through man-overboard drills, at-sea replenishments, and the occasional typhoon, pretty much everything except Sunday Mass. When I was a boy, he chased sky and sea off this very ship. One day, his plane dipped imperceptibly—a wing tapping the ocean—and disintegrated. All that remained was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.
Still groggy, I watch my roommate—a no-nonsense pilot—through the blue curtain of my bunk. He studies today’s flight schedule and puts on his flight suit for his first mission. He runs a razor over his face and slaps on aftershave. A moment later, the door slams behind him. I detect a familiar scent, one that is flinty and masculine. I jump down from the bunk and open the medicine cabinet. Inside is his blue bottle of Aqua Velva After Shave. I remove the cap and inhale.
* * *
The smell takes me back. It’s May 28, 1979, in Oak Harbor, Washington. Upstairs in the master bedroom, Commander Peter Rodrick wears a white undershirt and briefs. Gray creeps in at the temples. He slaps on Aqua Velva and winces. He carefully places a speck of yellow toilet paper on his chin. He always cuts himself there. In the mirror, he catches me peering around the corner. I am twelve. My fingertips are black from folding copies of the Seattle Times.
“What’s the matter, knucklehead?”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“You’ve never been scared before. Scared of what?”
“Scared something bad is going to happen.”
Dad tousles my hair.
“It’ll be fine. Now try and get along with your mom, and don’t fight her on everything. Even if you’re right.”
He turns back to the mirror and arches his thick, black Irish eyebrows. Then he frowns.
“You need a haircut.”
I push brown bangs out of blue eyes and nod. He’s right as usual. I watch in silence as he carefully puts on his khaki uniform. I hand him his belt with its gold buckle shined to perfection. Without a word, he slips the belt through the loops of his pants and heads down the stairs.
At the bottom, he kisses my mom. She carries my baby sister, Christine, not quite two years old. Mother and daughter are trying to be brave, but it doesn’t come easy. One afternoon when I was two, Mom made peanut butter sandwiches for me and my older sister, Terry, in our small bungalow on Meridian Naval Air Station in Mississippi. She flipped on the TV and started watching Days of Our Lives, but it was interrupted by a news bulletin reporting the crash of a Navy T-2 a few hundred yards short of NAS Meridian’s runway.
The T-2 was Dad’s plane. She turned off the television and tried not to go to pieces. A car pulled into the driveway, either Dad or the base chaplain. The door opened and there was my father, a bandage on his forehead, his flight suit ripped and blackened from ejecting.
That was five moves and four cruises ago. Barbara Rodrick has raised three children on her own while her husband has spent 1,100 days of the last six years at sea, making hundreds of landings on the Oriskany, the Forrestal, the Nimitz, and now the Kitty Hawk.
There are more lonely days ahead. Today, he leaves for a six-month deployment in the Pacific, his third cruise flying an EA-6B Prowler, a radar-jamming plane nicknamed the Flying Pig for its maneuverability issues. He swears to her that this is the last one; next will be the Pentagon or some other shore duty. He promises he will be there for her. She believes him. He does not tell her he’s applying for the space shuttle program.
Her two girls are low-maintenance. I am not. I arrive a month premature, with my dad’s brains but not much else. My chart reads “slight discoordination of his right side.” That’s an understatement. At school, I talk and talk, gulp air, and talk more. Fill-in-the-oval tests put me in advanced classes. Actual grades remove me from advanced classes. Listening eludes me, as do the intersecting laces of my shoes. I see pediatric psychiatrists, take Ritalin, and participate in complicated behavior-modification programs involving baseball cards.
There are many parent-teacher conferences. I sit outside the door on a folding chair while my mother cries and apologizes for me. It’s weird; do they think I can’t hear them?
* * *
It’s time for Dad to go. Terry, as stoic as I’m melodramatic, throws Dad’s duffel bag into our Buick station wagon. Dad pauses for a moment in the garage and stares at his white MG. It’s already up on blocks and covered with a tarp. A neighbor snaps a family photo on the front yard. Slivers of light flit through the evergreens. Everyone loads into the car for the fifteen-minute drive to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
Except me. I have papers to deliver. This isn’t a small thing. I went 0-for-1978 in baseball, so I didn’t play this year. Delivering papers is the only structure in my ADD/Dad-always-gone life. Mom thinks it’s a good idea that I stay with my regular routine even on departure days. I don’t argue. Car doors slam while I stuff rubber-banded papers into my carrier bag. Dad backs the wagon out of the drive and pulls away. I give a last wave. He doesn’t see me.
I finish my route and stop at an old water tower. It sits at the top of a hill separating two phases of subdivisions carved out of the trees. I toss my Sears ten-speed down the hill and watch the spokes spin. I’ve been through this before. A sports and politics junkie living in a house full of females, I will retreat to my room. I’ll lie in bed, stare at NFL pennants and toss an orange Nerf football off the ceiling, constructing an intricate fantasy world of triumphant campaigns and touchdown passes. And I’ll be alone. At school, “underachiever” and “hyperactive” will be written on my report cards. There will be lectures about wasting God’s gifts. Mom will cry. Every few weeks, a postcard will arrive from Hong Kong, Singapore, or some other Shangri-La, exhorting me to do better.
But there’s hope for me this time. Hope for everybody, really. Dad’s dream comes true on the Fourth of July. Peter Rodrick will become commanding officer of his own squadron, VAQ-135, the Black Ravens. He will be just thirty-six, one of the youngest skippers in the Navy. He’s on the fast track, maybe all the way to admiral.
But that’s grown-up talk. All I know is that on December 10 I fly from Seattle to Honolulu and ride back to San Diego with Dad aboard the Kitty Hawk. The voyage will take six days, longer than I’ve ever spent alone with him.
Finally, there will be time. I can come clean about faking sick so I could watch the Red Sox–Yankees one-game playoff last October. The Sox are Dad’s team. He’ll understand. Finally, I can learn what my father does. I know he flies jets off carriers, but how? Finally, I can ask him why things seem so hard all the time.
Time passes slowly. I’m already trying to follow him. I deliver papers every day, just like Dad did as a kid. But he saved his earnings and bought his mother her first dishwasher. I squander mine on the five-ice-cream-sandwich lunch. The sugar bath does not improve my concentration skills.
I’m also an altar boy, just like him. But his serving skills were in high demand, praised by the monsignor. Me? One Sunday, I stagger backward from the Bible’s weight during the final blessing. The congregation titters—is he going to drop the thing?—until the priest announces, “I’m going to let the lad sit down before he hurts himself.”
In July, my sisters and I are farmed out to my aunt and uncle in Michigan so Mom can fly to the Philippines for Dad’s change-of-command ceremony. My parents are tan and happy in the pictures she brings back. When they part, Mom breaks down, crying, inconsolable, consumed with fear she will never see him again. Everyone tells her she’s crazy.
I don’t help matters. I smuggle a hundred firecrackers back to Oak Harbor in my suitcase. Mom finds out. She screams through tears.
“I don’t think your father has any idea the kind of son he has!”
That’s quite possible. She says she’d cancel my Hawaii trip, except she needs a break from me. Instead, I’m grounded for the rest of the summer. The other wives come over almost every night. I watch Cathy Brown cry in Mom’s arms. She is pregnant and scared. The other wives smoke cigarettes, drink Riunite, and talk about their absent husbands. Are they safe? Are they faithful? Is this what they signed up for when they sat under oak trees and watched their men march off demerits at the academy?
I listen from the stairs, then sneak into my little sister’s room and watch her sleep. I’ve been told not to, but I can’t stop myself. I remove my shoes, walk in quietly, and roll Chrissie onto her back; I’m petrified she’s going to suffocate to death.
Gray settles back over the island. The illusion of summer is gone. At last, it is fall. We are down to numbers I can understand: twenty-three days, twenty-two days . . . The Kitty Hawk drops anchor in the Philippines, just two weeks away from Pearl Harbor. I brag about my trip to trapped customers when I collect for the paper. They smile, back away, and close their screen doors. And yet I’m still talking! I care about nothing else.
But on November 4, sixty-six Americans are taken hostage in the U.S. embassy in Iran. I fold my papers and stare at pictures of blindfolded Americans. I don’t connect the dots. Then, in the middle of a November night, Dad calls from the officers’ club in Subic Bay. Mom says he wants to talk to me. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and cradle the phone. He says he’s sorry. The boat is being turned around, off to the Persian Gulf as a show of strength. I don’t know what that means. I just know there will be no trip to Hawaii.
So I sulk. A week passes. Thanksgiving dinner is eaten at the officers’ club. The mothers are pale and hollow-eyed, the kids ecstatic; there is an endless ice-cream sundae bar. Dad’s letters arrive from somewhere. They used to be marked on the back with the number of days until his return. Now he just circles the seal on the envelope with a question mark and an unhappy face.
Soon, it’s the morning of November 28. Mom sleeps in; Chrissie has been up with the croup. Terry and I eat two bowls of Frosted Flakes. As usual, we don’t talk. Dad’s not here, but Mom still has the house set at his prescribed 63 degrees. I sit on a heating vent and read a skiing magazine.
By 11:00 a.m., I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to skate backward at the Roller Barn for eighth-grade gym class. I can tell you the electoral college breakdown of the Carter-Ford presidential election and the status of Kenny Stabler’s wobbly knees, but when it comes to the things that confer acceptance upon boys—hitting a baseball, building a catapult for Webelos, roller-skating backward—I’m hopeless. I need someone to show me how, someone to tell me that it really doesn’t matter anyway. But that man is always 8,000 miles away.
So I fall on my ass. The cool kids snicker. My gym teacher calls me over. I’m relieved at first because it stops the laughing. But the teacher’s permanently upbeat face has gone flat. She points to a man standing by the snack bar. He wears a black uniform and carries a white hat in his hand. It is Lieutenant Commander Laddie Coburn, Dad’s best friend. I slowly skate over and sit down on a bench. He hesitates, sits down next to me, and puts a hand on my knee.
“Your father has been in an accident.”
He says there’s hope; the helos are still looking. I do not believe him. I am now thirteen and I’ve grown up around the Navy. If they haven’t found him by now, they aren’t going to.
He drives me home, and the world rushes toward me hotter and faster than ever before. I choke back vomit. We arrive at the house on North Conifer Drive. This time, the chaplain’s car is in the driveway. My sisters walk hand in hand in the front yard. Inside, the wives have already gathered. They smoke Virginia Slims and laugh without conviction. A fresh casserole sits untouched on the table. Mom looks different; she became old the moment the doorbell rang.
I play the radio in my room. 710 KIRO mentions a missing Prowler between traffic reports. Terry wanders in. She says something. I do not hear.
Later that day, it is confirmed that Commander Peter Rodrick and three crew members, Lieutenant Commander William Coffey, Lieutenant James Brown Jr., and Lieutenant Junior Grade John Chorey, are dead. There are no bodies to recover. The men leave four widows and seven children under the age of fifteen.
I still deliver my papers. Almost done. An old crone who never tips steps into her weedy yard. She wraps me in a hug. She heard about Dad on the news. Her tears drop onto my last remaining newspaper. The blot grows and expands, obliterating words.
It’s dark now. I put my bike back in the garage, next to Dad’s shrouded MG. I slip past the grown-ups—now so anxious to talk!—up the stairs and into my parents’ bedroom. I breathe in deeply. Nothing. I frantically look in the medicine cabinet and then under the sink, but the bottle, and the smell, is gone.
* * *
An hour before my father’s memorial service, a family friend slips me a tablet, probably Valium, leaving me with a detached, third-person feel for the rest of the day. At the chapel, four caps sit on the altar. Three of the wives are quiet, but Cathy Brown, now the widow of Lieutenant James Brown Jr., loudly bleeds grief, holding a tiny daughter who will never know her father. There are no coffins, but much talk of a loving God. More than four hundred people sing “Eternal Father,” the Navy anthem to “those in peril on the sea.”
Afterward, my family sits mute in our station wagon. Laddie Coburn leans through an open window and tries to console Mom.
“C’mon, Barb, you can start a whole new life.”
Her response is a whisper.
* * *
From The Magical Stranger, Copyright 2013 Stephen Rodrick.