Father’s Day has always been a man’s day to me.
Growing up, I saw my father and my grandfather as larger than life characters. Not only did they tower over my little tow-headed self in size, but their accomplishments and community stature loomed large. I was intimidated by them as a child. Their shadows were long and no matter where I went, I never seemed to escape them.
But then came Father’s Day. It was a day of détente, where no matter how bad I was I couldn’t get in trouble, and no matter how good I was, I’d never be noticed. For perhaps the first time, I realized that there was a day dedicated to someone other than myself. I remember making gifts out of wood, glue and moss. I also remember going to the local drug store and, forcing myself not to buy comic books—which was a tremendously difficult thing, especially with Turok's run in the early 1970s—I’d buy a gift I thought was a grown up gift to buy. I think once I even bought my father a bottle of Hai Karate cologne. It was the commercial of the man, side-kicking the bikini-clad girls on the beach that made me do it.
Darn girls. What do they know?
Then, eventually, as time progressed, my shadow grew to almost equal proportions and I became a father too. I’ve been given my share of homemade gifts, store-bought gifts, and cards for when my kids just didn’t have the cash. Each of these gifts, no matter how small or how large, was lovely, an offering of love and childhood fealty. I still have many of them. Some are on dressers or desks or shelves, still others are in drawers, me unable to get rid of them, each gift an inextricable piece of my children.
And now here I am at 47 years old, a father of two, a son of a father and mother, and a husband to a wife. It’s Father’s Day in Afghanistan and I’ve been encased in melancholy all day. Part of it was because of the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend I missed in New Orleans. I face-timed my wife several times and got to see a lot of people I think of as close friends. Although I might see them once a year, I’m the sort of guy who would run across a busy highway to save them if I saw them in trouble. I think when I saw Mikey Huyck, it kind of choked me up. See, Mikey and I go way back to the days I first started writing. Although years might go by without us speaking to each other, we hold a special friendship which no one can really duplicate. Seeing him, I realized just how badly I’ve been missing him. And then there was seeing Rocky. I’ve loved that big lug Australian man since I first met him years ago. I’ve always been there for him and he’s always been there for me and I’m afraid that I might have missed my last chance to see him before… well, some things you just shouldn’t say.
And I’m in Afghanistan.
I called my father yesterday. His shadow is as large as ever. He’s a great man. He’s earned great respect and we give it to him along with great love. My kids emailed me, showing their love. My wife wished me Happy Father’s Day too, for the millionth time wishing aloud that she’d rather I be home than here. Normally, I tell her about duty and sacrifice and all those crazy ideas I learned from John Wayne movies and presidential holiday speeches. But not today. Today, for the first time, I really wanted to be home; or if not home, with my wife and Mikey and Rocky.
But I’m in Afghanistan. Sunday is just another day here. Father’s Day is an American holiday and on this NATO base it’s largely ignored. Still, several of my coworkers took time to wish me Happy Father's Day. Each time I smiled, but each time it was a dagger hurled through my heart, reminding me where I wasn’t, what I wasn’t doing, and who I wasn’t doing those things with.
I took an hour for myself midday. I went on top of the US NSE—basically a third floor covered patio that overlooks the camp and outside the walls. There’s always a breeze. I found a chair, tuned up some old Robert Flack in the headphones, and read some from my copy of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. I’m still early in the book and the lead protagonist Hans, a whining German hypochondriac, has still not realized that the world doesn’t revolve around him and that other people, especially their families, are an intrinsic ingredient to the overall health of the collective. I read for a bit. I listened for a bit. And I dozed. You know that sort of nap where you know you’re indulging but you don’t care because it feels so good—it was that kind of nap.
When I awoke I was still in Afghanistan. I sat up. I watched the people for a time. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, civilians and contractors. Men and women, young and old, American and ally. Unlike Hans, I thought outside of myself. Each and every one of them has someone or something to miss. What makes me special? Who the hell am I to indulge in a little self-pitying melancholy? I reminded myself that although I’m in a warzone, I’m at the Headquarters for all of Afghanistan with all the niceties therein. What about those fathers and sons out on forward operating bases? Somewhere in Nangarhar Province is a father at an observation post manning a gun position and the last thing on his mind is that it’s Father’s Day. There’s a father driving an up-armored vehicle down a dirt track in Paktika Province, ass clenched because he’s not certain the road is actually clear and that there’s a better than average possibility that he might hit a roadside bomb. And there’s probably a Special Forces A Team operating near Khost, within sight of a Taliban safe haven, preparing to take action on them before they can take action on us. I doubt they’re weepy-eyed over the idea that they’re missing Father’s Day.
I started this by saying that Father’s Day is a man’s day. In my taxonomy of understanding, a man isn’t merely the sum of his XY chromosomes. A man has always been someone who will do the hard thing for the right reason to contribute to the greater good without intentional personal benefit. My grandfather was a man. My father is a man. These warriors I witness every day are men. The men away from my base are men. And I’m pleased to say that I am a man. I might get a little emotional every now and then, but those episodes are just pit stops along my long journey through manhood.
I chose to come here. I could have stayed home. I had plenty of opportunities. But I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to be that man my father and grandfather showed me how to be. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss my wife, even though we talk every day. But I’m here for a season of duty. I’m here to serve. I’m here to build my shadow.
It’s Father’s Day. I just got an email from my dad thanking me for the inscribed beer glasses I gave him. He said they’re going to get heavy use. You go dad. You deserve it. And when I get back, we’ll drink some together.
Weston OchseCurrently in