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I was an Air Force brat—and I say that with the deepest affection and gratitude because that experience has largely shaped who I am today. In fact, if it weren’t for my father’s military service, I wouldn’t be here—let alone writing this! My father was what we called a “lifer” in the United States Air Force.
My parents met when my dad was stationed in Japan during the U.S. Occupation after the Second World War. It was not love at first sight for my Japanese mother, but my father? He was a goner. After pulling out all the stops and courting my mother for a full year, he finally won. Mom consented to go out with him. Her initial reluctance was not only because he was an American G.I. There were also cultural traditions for her to consider. In Japan, if no sons are born, the designated daughter carries the family name. As an only child, the obligation fell to my mother to marry a Japanese man who would assume her last name, and give their children that name.
The romance was not ideal as far as my mother’s family was concerned. But once they got to know the character of my father and his country, they fell in love with him, too, and set aside a cultural tradition that had been practiced for centuries. On February 2, 1955, my parents were married in a civil ceremony by a Justice of the Peace. Three and a half weeks later, they had a traditional Japanese wedding. My mother wore a bridal kimono and lacquered wig, and painted her face and hands white, like a Japanese porcelain doll. My father also wore a kimono for the ancient daylong ritual.
My parents’ marriage is not unlike the military. They both are melting pots representing diversity and integration. While there was still much racial intolerance in our country when my parents were first married, the opposite was true in the U.S. Military. By virtue of their world travels, U.S. servicemen came home with foreign brides and started families of mixed heritage. By virtue of their service, they learned how to cooperate and collaborate. By virtue of their commitment, they contributed wherever they served.
My father served in small ways wherever he was, even when not in uniform. It’s the military way. It’s the American way. He taught me compassion, contribution and community, not with words, but actions. I remember so well when we were stationed in the Middle East—Ankara, Turkey. I was in the third grade. It was a hard time for us. There was no military housing for families, so we lived among the Turkish. The country was underdeveloped and the apartment buildings seemed to be built of sand. We couldn’t drink the water or eat the food. We didn’t speak the language. Frequent earthquakes rattled the ground and our nerves, and crumbled the buildings.
One particular summer weekend as my sister and I were playing on the balcony to stay clear of the large population of dogs and cats plagued with rabies, we heard the anguished shrieking of a baby. Scared, we looked to our parents for cues and comfort. They recognized these cries were not coming from a child simply wanting attention. They were the cries of a baby in acute pain. Dad raced down the apartment stairs, following the sickening sounds of devastating pain. We followed, too, and discovered that our apartment manager’s baby had been scalded. She had somehow managed to grab the handle of a boiling pot of rice and it toppled on her. I don’t know what happened in the panic that followed, since Mom ushered my sister and me back home. She told us that Daddy was going to make sure the baby was taken care of. And he did. Yosef, the apartment manager, could not pay for his daughter’s medical care, so my dad did. He bought them food and milk, too. Mom made and delivered meals to the family so they could devote as much time as possible to the care of their injured child.
Not long after that, a fire broke out on one of the bottom floors of our apartment building in the middle of the night. Dad helped Yosef with the orderly evacuation of the building and hauled and manned the garden hoses to spray down the flames while we waited for the arrival of firefighters. From that time on, Dad became the “go-to guy” when Yosef wasn’t around and sometimes even when he was!
Out of these experiences, it ceased to be the Turks and the Americans. It was no longer “us” and “them.” It was “we”—a priceless lesson that I carry with me today; a lesson in compassion, contribution, and perhaps most importantly, community. It’s the military way. It’s the American Way.
This is just one story of how my father’s military service has served me. My life is rich with them. I am proud of my father and his 21 years of military service. They will be in me and with me forever…in the way I live, in the way I love.
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Denise Yamada © 11/2011