• Terri Mitchell

Terri Mitchell

I think this is a prologue.

My dad and I aren’t close. There’s no big reason for this, we just don’t have much to say to each other. I grew up in southern Illinois living with my single mom, with Dad five minutes away in the same town. I stayed at his house every other weekend. It was fun — I had a sleeping bag there and would eat cheese curls and hot dogs on the floor in front of the TV. My dad is mellow and good-natured. A guy who likes to tell long jokes with big setups, he covers his mouth when he laughs because he’s self-conscious about his teeth. One of my California friends met him and exclaimed, “Aw, your dad is so salt-of-the-earth!,” which I’m pretty sure is code for something condescending, but I let it slide. Behind Dad’s Midwestern, BBQ-grillin’, simple-folk affect, he’s a still-waters-run-deep kind of a guy — that’s probably where the beer comes in.

When I was a kid, weekends with my dad tended to involve me going to dive bars and bowling alleys. I was provided with bottomless orange sodas and an ample supply of quarters to play pinball, video poker, and the claw machine. This mostly occupied me while Dad watched baseball and shot the shit with the other day-drinkers. I mastered that claw machine — in retrospect, it’s telling that the American Legion Post 214 in Bethalto, Illinois, had installed a machine full of stuffed animals. In Southern California, taking your little girl to a bar as a weekend activity would be frowned upon. In the amount of time I’d spend in bars on any given Saturday, a California kid would be late for two practices, a play date, and a mani-pedi. You hear the phrase “helicopter parents” a lot. I was more free-range.

“Daaaaaddddddd...can we go now?”

“After I drink this beer.”

But he’d always have another one. He wasn’t trying to hide it, and he’d give me another handful of quarters to get me off his case. Deal.

I don’t mean to tell you this in that sad-music, lonely, ignored-child-of-an-alcoholic way. Hanging out at the bar was boring, but the drinking didn’t bother me — it just was. I had other adults and family members around, so I wasn’t depending on my father alone for guidance. He was my dad, he was nice to me, and he just happened to be drinking beer all the time.

Sometimes I’d bring him a beer. I’d try to pop open the aluminum tab. It looked so easy when he did it — k-chhk! fizz — but my little fingers ended up twisting it off. No big deal. He’d get a can opener to make a hole in the top. He never got mad at me. I can see him sitting late at night in the flashing blue glow of the TV screen, a can in one of his many beer cozies balanced on the faux-wood TV-tray next to his plate of leftovers. He’d drink one beer after another, and long after I was asleep, he was up laughing at Three Stooges episodes. He’d probably seen every one of those shows 20 times before, and he still watches them today. And still laughs hysterically at them. I’ve never understood what was funny about the Three Stooges.

The Big Picture

A few years ago (I was 29 at the time) I was in Illinois, visiting for the holidays. By that time, I’d lived away from home for over ten years. I’d joined the Air Force right out of high school; after that, I took my GI Bill to college. In San Diego, I’d been working as a graphic designer for two years and had already become unused to the nosehair-freezing Midwestern winter.

After an evening hanging at the bar with my dad and various of my half-siblings and their spouses, we moved the party back to Dad’s house. I was sitting on the couch with my Coors Light when I noticed a large photo of me on the living room wall. It was my Air Force portrait — the one they make you take at the end of basic training. You’ve seen them: the baby-faced deer-in-headlights pose in uniform with a flag background. This was not when I looked my best. It was after weeks of being yelled at and herded like cattle, me screaming. “Sir, Airman Mitchell reports as ordered!” before everything that I said. Days consisted of folding socks and shirts into impossibly perfect stacks of sock-and-shirt bricks and cleaning lots of things that were already clean. There’s not much time to think or talk or be a human being — you’re just going through the motions, trying not to get yelled at. The photos are taken quickly. Single-file lines, no talking. I was 18, and my cheeks were chubby. Even through boot camp, though, I managed to maintain impressively over-plucked eyebrows.

Even after weeks of being yelled at and herded like cattle, I managed to maintain impressively over-plucked eyebrows for my Air Force portrait.

Past-me staring back at present-me looked very serious, and very young — standing nearly eyebrowless in my blue uniform with the American flag draped behind me. It wasn’t my favorite photo. It represented a phase in my life I hadn’t quite dealt with yet.

The Patriot

The military years were not great for me, mostly, I assume, because of issues everyone faces in early adulthood:

What am I good at? Am I good at anything?

I am not happy doing this, and I don’t know why.

I can’t help that it sounds sarcastic when I call you, “Sir.”

Why am I wearing camouflage and combat boots in an office?

There were no other photos of me on my dad’s living room wall, no signs of my existence anywhere else. I pointed to the picture and said, “Come on, Dad, why that photo? Don’t you have any better ones? Something cuter?” I was thinking maybe a freckle-faced grade-school shot, or even one of my baby pictures, with the fake Kmart outdoor background that has over the years turned orange. Something nostalgic, or at least cute. This photo wasn’t old enough to be nostalgic. It wasn’t cute, and it certainly wasn’t representative of what I was doing then. It made me uncomfortable.

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Comments

Javajoe25 June 19, 2013 @ 11:58 p.m.

It's amazing how people can live a good portion of their lives together and never really know who they each are or what they are about. Kudos to you for pointing it out, Ms. Mitchell.

But what I want to really thank you for is for pointing out what a bunch of bs the military scene is. I was in too and I could not believe what a waste of time, space, and man (or woman) hours the whole thing was. I mean, yea, rah-rah for the brave soldiers who get to be soldiers, but the vast majority of the 'cruits' and lifers I met was the biggest bunch of screw-offs I had ever encountered. And you are absolutely right about the benefits - the best there is -- free, total health care for you and everyone in your family - exactly what people in this country have been trying to get for years but are told it's not possible; unaffordable, and not practical. Military also gets extra monetary allowances for everything and anything you might have to...God forbid --pay for! And discounts and freebies everywhere you go.

It is my opinion that the primary reason young working class women in this country are going into the military like never before is because it is the best paying job they will ever have...and they know it. What other job gives you 30 days vacation after one year? Or, is it six months? As you noted, you get raises for moving up, staying still, or turning left or right correctly. It is the biggest and best give away program in the world. Granted, there is the chance you could get sent overseas and get maimed or killed in a war that no one can explain anymore. As disgraceful as that is, the ladies are willing to take their chances to ride on this benefits-loaded bandwagon. Thank you very much for telling it like it is...and then some.

Oh, and as for those rosary beads? I think your old man did it just to piss off your mom. Just like my ex-wife went Re-born just to piss me off.

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TerriBeth June 20, 2013 @ 4:12 p.m.

Yes, 30 days paid vacation + all federal holidays! Forgot about that one. And really low interest rates on car payments! Man, I was living large!

It would be interesting to calculate the total amount of money I received from the government (taxpayers) when all the benefits are tacked on. It's obscene. Certainly designed to trap the working class, as you said. No qualifications? Money? Travel? Training? FREE STUFF!? Sign me up!

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Javajoe25 June 20, 2013 @ 6:38 p.m.

It wasn't that long ago that Congress wanted to give the military more than they had requested in their budget. And yet, we can't afford health care, have to cut Social Security, and eliminate programs for school kids. Unreal.

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mridolf June 21, 2013 @ 3:12 a.m.

I'm not quite sure what the focus of this story is supposed to be. Is it that the lady found out about her Dad's Catholicism so late, or the fact that he never really 'knew' her. I fully empathise with the not knowing someone close to you is Catholic. I spent my one tour in the military (Army, Germany, immediately after Vietnam), with two best friends I met in basic training. We did everything together (travel, work, nights on the town). I even visited them after the Army, and still keep in contact. I had another best friend through SDSU engineering, doing much the same things together. But it wasn't until I met and married my Catholic wife, in the USD student chapel, that I found out that all 3 of them are/were Catholic. And I'm, well, a non-believer too. It just doesn't come up. But what is the eye-opener here? Good writing, OK story, but what is the main focus? Is she picking on her Dad, or men in general, or the military, or all of the above?

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gahuber95 June 22, 2013 @ 12:33 a.m.

Wow. The guy lives in a non-communist country and still manages to hide his Catholicism from his daughter. No wonder Pope Francis is telling us Catholics that we need to be more evangelical.

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