By Sarah Bird

Special to the "Austin American-Statesman"

Monday, September 24, 2001

Shortly after I heard the news on Sept. 11, I began trying to contact my friends and colleagues in New York. As I reached them, I heard myself echoing the words we have all come to accept, "This is new; this is unprecedented." But it wasn't. Not for me.

Even as I spoke the words, I tried to figure out why this emotional landscape seemed so indefinably familiar, why I felt I'd inhabited it before.

Finally, on Wednesday, I reached my agent of 22 years, Kris Dahl. Kris and I are close for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, like myself, she was raised in an Air Force family, specifically, a Strategic Air Command family. Her father flew bombers in World War II and Vietnam. My father flew the same sorts of planes equipped to gather reconnaissance -- radar frequencies, response times, location of weapons factories, number of tanks, planes, troops. This kind of information proved to be so useful against the Soviet Union and so worthless against men with box cutters.

I could tell that Kris hadn't slept; her voice was hoarse, hollow, as she told me about what she had witnessed from her window in Manhattan the day before. Then, she asked if I'd been watching TV and seen the silo at Offutt Air Force Base that President Bush had been hustled into. She told me that that silo was within sight of the pool where her swim team had practiced when her family was stationed there.

Then Kris paused and said, "Listen." She held the phone out so I could hear what she was hearing, and the sound of my childhood came back to me. "F-16s," I said.

"Yes," Kris answered, "F-16s are flying over New York. None of my civilian friends have ever heard them before."

For a second, we both remembered the playgrounds of our childhoods on bases around the world that had trembled with the roar of fighter jets taking off.

Kris said that in her New York suburban neighborhood, people were valiantly trying to carry on with their lives, and, for seconds at a time, it's almost as if nothing had happened. "And then," Kris goes on, "one of the kids mentions a friend whose dad or uncle or mom didn't come home last night."

In that instant, I found myself relocated to the precise source of the disconcerting familiarity that had been haunting me. It was an incident that had troubled me enough that I eventually wrote a novel to box it in.

I was 7, maybe 8, at the time. My family was stationed on Yokota Air Base in Japan. My father had been gone for several weeks on one of the frequent trips he took. I knew his squadron was called the 6091st Reconnaissance and they left frequently on TDYs. I knew that TDY stood for temporary duty assignment but had no idea what reconnaissance might mean and had learned, as had my five brothers and sisters, without ever being told, not to ask.

We lived off-base at that time in a small house with paper screens surrounded as all the Americans' houses were by barbed wire. It was a hot, still summer day when the big heads of the blue hydrangeas drooped on their stems. My brothers and sisters and I were outside playing in a swimming pool my mother had improvised from a large wooden packing crate and an old shower curtain when a staff car drove up. It was highly unusual to see any American cars on our narrow streets lined by benjo ditches and even more unusual for an officer in uniform to visit during the day.

As the officer stepped out of the big car, we children felt the air molecules around our heads shiver and reverse charge, and we turned toward our mother. She stood frozen, her face gone white.

The officer opened the gate, came in and asked, "Mac, have you heard the news?" My mother began sobbing and calling out, "No, no, no!" The major ran forward, grabbed her and hastily explained. "No, not that. The crew had engine trouble. They're delayed." My father came home from that delayed mission and left to fly many more. No one ever asked him where he was going or where he'd been when he returned except for once.

Not long after the day that the blue hydrangeas drooped, my middle brother who was 3, maybe 4, at the time asked my mother why our father had to leave. He didn't want him to leave, she didn't want him to leave, why did he have to leave? In the one time I ever recall anyone talking about our father's work, my mother answered, "He has to leave so that all the boys and girls back home will be safe."

I grieve that on Sept. 11, the box I'd written to contain the vulnerability and fear that shadows military childhoods was opened and would come to shadow my son's childhood and the childhood of all American children. I grieved that on Sept. 11 there ceased to be a "back home."

Sarah Bird's latest novel, "The Yokota Officers Club," was published this June 2001.
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