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“Unsolid Ground”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Jennifer Roberts

In second grade, my father shook the Earth.

I was sitting in my classroom in southern California, just north of Los Angeles, when the windows began to rattle and the earthquake alarm sounded. We went through the whole drill, crouched under desks, evacuated to the playground. It was my first earthquake. I wasn’t a fan.

The ground should be a solid and constant thing. The knowledge that sometimes the earth moves and breaks apart is very different than the experience of it doing so, of it giving a shudder, like you were a speck of lint on its shoulder and it suddenly decided to brush you off.

That night, I learned that the earthquake was not, in fact, an earthquake at all.  The earth shook not because of tectonic plates, but because of my father. He and another pilot were flying low just off the coast, breaking the sound barrier. Their sonic booms shook the earth.

The recruitment slogan for the Navy used to be, “Join the Navy. See the world.”  I joined the day I was born.  The filled its promise; I saw the world, experienced far more than most kids by the age of ten. But I also never asked to.  And the price I paid for the world was having to find my balance again every time it shifted beneath my feet.

***

A year after my dad’s stunts earned me popularity with 8-year-old boys, my family packed up and shipped off to Italy. The conflict in the Persian Gulf was revving up and our flight was filled with men in fatigues, smoking and bracing themselves for the sting of sand and bullets, making a quick stop in Italy before catching the next plane to Iraq. My family would be getting off in Naples and taking a bus ride an hour north to our new home.

We arrived in Gaeta only a couple days before New Year’s Eve. We moved into The Lions, a hotel on the main road in the heart of town (just until we could find a place to live, my mother told me). A few blocks away sat the only military offices, located in an unassuming building across the street from half-excavated Roman ruins. It was on this corner we’d soon wait behind cement barricades for the bus to take us to school. But school would come later; first, there was New Year’s Eve.

Our “sponsor”—the person responsible for helping us acclimate to our new life – first warned us about the coming New Year’s Eve. I was fascinated by the stories she told. In southern Italy, she said, New Year’s Eve is a big deal. Down in Naples, they believe in a literal “out with the old, in with the new” approach, tossing any old item, whether it’s a carpet or a couch, out the window to clear space for the new. “But,” she told us, “that doesn’t happen here, thank goodness,” as though that were a good thing. The spectacle, dangerous or not, sounded like something I wanted to witness. What, then, did they do in Gaeta?  “Fireworks,” she said. “Tons and tons of fireworks.”

Fireworks didn’t sound so special. All countries used fireworks to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  But not like the Italians, I would learn.  Everyone had fireworks. Stockpiles of them. And living down in the center of town, we would be at ground zero. It would sound, we were told, like World War III. I was outwardly skeptical, inwardly exhilarated.

On New Year’s Eve, we braced for the celebration to come. My family stayed gathered together in the common area of our suite as the night deepened, waiting for the explosions. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, I grew impatient and jittery, ready for the war to begin. I left to go to the restroom and as I closed the door behind me, something cracked, loud and sharp against the bathroom window. I screamed as my feet flew out from under me. I landed hard on my back, the echo of my skull on marble reverberating in my ears. My mother came running, asking questions through the door that I didn’t answer. She found me laughing and crying on the floor as the first explosions of the night began to erupt. I didn’t use the restroom again until morning.

I stayed up late that night, later than I had any previous year, listening to the drawn-out rattling of chemistry, beautiful and angry. My brother and I wanted, desperately, to go out on the balcony, to see what was happening. But the occasional crack against the window, the loud rattling on our balcony, kept my mother from even letting us near a window, so we played board games long into the night as the world exploded around us.

I fell asleep curled up on the couch, not wanting to go to my own room, not even when the celebrations finally ended. The next morning, the streets were coated in gray ash and confetti, the city silent in its morning-after hangover. I imagined the ash was the product of cannon fire and the confetti the torn clothing of the injured, remnants of the night’s battle that left the streets hollow and still. I stepped carefully as I walked with my mom, imagining landmines ready to explode beneath my feet.

***

We stayed in The Lions for four months waiting for someplace in town to rent. It was purgatory. Each morning, my brother and I would make jokes about “escaping the clutches of The Lions” or “sneaking out of The Lions’ den.” Going to school was a relief. It got us away from the too-cozy confines of our suite. But it was also nerve-wracking, at least until we numbed to the routine. Every weekday morning, we climbed onto the bus and were greeted by stern-faced Carabinieri, Uzis in hand. Every weekday morning, we waited for that ominous bus behind a more-ominous concrete barricade. I would sometimes look up at surrounding buildings, picturing snipers lying in wait, imagined bullets lodging in the concrete as I ducked safely behind. I don’t think anyone ever explained to me why we had to wait behind the barrier, other than that it would keep us safe, “just in case.” In case of what? Naturally, my mind shaped scenarios. I was the daughter of a Navy pilot with no sense of geography living oversees during the Gulf War. At school, we sang perverted Christmas carols. “Joy to the world, Saddam is dead. We Tom-a-hawked his head. What happened to his body? We spread it all over Saudi! And Army and Navy sing!” I was both world-weary and ignorant and my imagination was rife for inventing threats. If it wasn’t snipers, it was jets. I’d sometimes stand hunched next to the barrier, looking nervously up in the sky and expecting planes to come flying overhead, to crush me beneath the weight of one of their bombs, to make the world reverberate with their impact.

***

Nearly as soon as my family arrived in Italy, my father began leaving. I was never certain where he went or what he did. I wasn’t allowed to know, for his safety and mine. I didn’t understand his job then, only that he was always needed by someone other than me, someone that took precedence. Sometimes he was gone for a few days, sometimes several weeks. He’d be home for a few days, a few weeks, then leave again. During all that time, I’d worry, wondering what he was doing, if he was safe. I knew he was going into danger, my parents didn’t hide that from me. I don’t think they ever told me his job was dangerous, but they didn’t tell me it was safe, either.  Kids make assumptions when they find a gas mask in the closet. But once again, I wasn’t sure what form that danger would take. They only told me he wasn’t going into combat. Maybe my parents thought they were creating a sense of safety by not laying out what the explicit dangers were. They were wrong.

Like at the bus stop, my imagination took over. I pictured assassins, bombings, land mines, and planes shot down. I pictured the chaplain, my best friend’s dad, arriving at our door, flag in hand, to tell us Dad wasn’t coming home. I never really believed any of the scenarios I created in my head. The fact that I imagined them helped, somehow, cement them as fiction, that they could never actually happen in real life.  I was afraid for my father sometimes, but mostly I just missed his presence.  I missed listening to his classic rock. I missed playing catch.  I missed his corny jokes and even missed him waking us up in the morning with his harmonica, an impish grin on his face, one unruly eyebrow cocked high.

It’s easy to look back now and think I should have resented him, should have questioned why the Navy always came first. But I didn’t. I still don’t. The Navy was his job. It was his life. And it was my life. I wished he were home more, but only in the abstract sense of wishing I were prettier or richer. His absence wasn’t something that would change by wishing.

Any anger, any frustration I felt was directed towards the faceless Navy that sent down Orders forcing us to move, forcing him to leave. Maybe this was just a defense mechanism, a way to remove the anger from those I love.

People were always telling me as I grew up what a great man my father was. Many were people who worked for him, some were people he worked for, all speaking with earnest eyes. I was never sure what to do with this information or why they would tell me. I would smile and nod my head in agreement. I didn’t know what they wanted from me. Some, I think, just wanted to express genuine admiration.  Others, perhaps, were trying to tell me, “He doesn’t just belong to you.”

***

I don’t remember most of the time when my father was home during those years in Italy. It sounds odd, but the days of home and away blur together in my memory and I don’t trust myself to tell the difference between him really having been home and me inserting him into a moment I feel he should have witnessed. I’m not sure if he huddled in the family room with us on that first New Year’s Eve or if he was there to see the Winter Pageant when I got to dance the Horah and Rob read The Night Before Christmas. I don’t remember all of his absences. But I do remember his presence. I remember him teaching me to ski on the Zuchspitz and climbing with me up the winding path to see the real Cinderella’s castle. I remember him ignoring my mother as she warned him we were being ripped off exchanging lira for francs when we arrived in Paris and I remember him trailing behind, lost in the beauty of the artwork in the Louvre, as my brother and I pushed my mother forward, snickering at all the female statues wearing “wet clothes” that clung to their bodies, revealing their marbled anatomy. I remember my father at home, dancing with me in the living room, us twirling, dipping, laughing, the world blurring as it flew past, the cool marble seeping through my socks. And I remember him letting me stand on his feet when a slow song played, my arms clutching him to me, my feet wobbling unsteadily as I let him lead, trusting him to hold me up even as he shook the world beneath my feet.