Listening to My Father
David Banks, an editor and producer for NPR's Web site, wrote this essay for Father's Day:
My first memory of my father was a voice on a tape recorder. A few years after I was born, my father -- a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a gifted pilot -- began the first of many assignments in Vietnam, flying U-2 spy plane missions during the Vietnam War.
Flying the U-2 is a specialized task -- pilots need to wear full pressure suits, just like astronauts, and undergo exhaustive training. His skills, I imagine, were in high demand. So from the late 1960s to mid-1973, he bounced from months of flying over hostile skies to a few months at home, then back again.
To keep in touch, he and my mother wrote piles of letters. But their chief way to communicate was by recording long monologues on cassette tapes. I remember hearing his voice on many such tapes, sitting around the tape player on the dining room table, and I remember trying to match his voice to his picture.
In my young mind, the whole Air Force base in Tucson, Ariz., was my home, and each man in uniform I saw was part of my extended family. And in many ways, the pilots who came home from Vietnam tried very hard to be stand-in fathers for the kids whose dads were still overseas.
That tape recorder was everywhere -- at Christmas, we would record ourselves opening presents, then listen to a pre-recorded message from dad. I remember that sometimes, only part of the tape was for us -- Mom would take the rest of the tape to listen to in her room.
I guess it was a couple of years after Dad finally came home for good, sometime towards the end of 1973, that it began to dawn on me that this man was actually my father. Ever since then, I've learned more about him in small measures, never forced. Over the years he's become my best friend and a trusted confidant.
When the latest war in the Gulf came around, I remembered those tapes again. My own brother-in-law was headed to the region, just like he did 10 years earlier in the 1991 Gulf War. He flies in the AWACS and J-Star radar tracking planes -- I guess my sister is keeping the long family tradition of military service alive. I wondered how my sister and my two young nephews handle his absence, and his own call to service.
I recently asked my parents if I could listen to those 30-year-old tapes. They agreed, without hesitation. Only later, as I began listening, did I realize the gift they had given me... Not only did the tapes give me a candid look into their own personal lives, but they allowed me, their youngest son, to see my parents at their most vulnerable moments.
The tapes were a revelation. I heard the ache and physical longing between them. I heard my father rattle off the smallest details of his life at the air base in Thailand, as though to hide the incredible stress he was under. That is my father's nature, to bear the weight and keep on going. I hear my mother, so lonely in that tiny cinderblock house in the desert, trying to care for three kids, all alone.... Not knowing if her husband will ever return, not wanting to hear about the danger her husband faces every day.
I heard two real people -- younger than I am now -- talking about the very things I think about today, in my own life and my life to come. A house. Family. Time alone with a loved one. The daily grind of creating a life and caring for the children they have created. Simple pleasures and responsibilities that encompass the whole world.
Some of what was on the tapes is graphic, hard to listen to -- but very true. And my parents gave me another gift: they trust me as a friend, a peer, an adult who deserves to understand the context of their past lives and safeguard that legacy.
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