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Life Without Dads

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life , published by Harpers.

I grew up in a town without fathers.

That didn’t seem to matter at first. More importantly to a kid, I grew up in a town without a McDonald’s.

“Welcome to Oak Harbor, Washington, population 10,445” read the sign at the city limits on the day in August of 1974 when we arrived in town. There was a five-and-dime, a lone cinema, some ball fields, and a burger joint called the Arctic Circle. We pulled our Chevy station wagon into a dirt parking lot and ordered dinner. Dad gave it his best shot.

“Arctic Circle is as good as McDonald’s.”

Of course my sister and I didn’t believe him. But the burgers were good.

In many ways, Oak Harbor in the 1970s was still 1950s Rockwellian America. Nestled in the northwest corner of the Northwest, Oak Harbor was the hub, such as it was, of Whidbey Island, the second-largest island in the continental United States as our teachers liked to remind us. Buying candy cigarettes was tough, much less the real thing. We went bowling, we went roller-skating, and we rode our bikes down dirt roads far into the evergreens. If it sounds idyllic, it was. Well, except for the planes screaming through the overcast skies day and night. And the fact that in our 40- to 50-house subdivision there were maybe 10 fathers.

My dad was gone, too, just a few months after selling us on the Arctic Circle. Peter Rodrick didn’t leave us exactly — he was a Navy pilot doing carrier qualifications off the Pacific coast in his EA-6B Prowler, a radar-jamming plane.

It would have seemed weirder if he was actually home. I eyed the few grown men in our neighborhood as I delivered the Seattle Times with suspicion; they were mostly retirees, stray civilians, or worse — a naval guy whose career was permanently screwed. Still, life went on. There might be five kids to one dad at father-son campouts, but that was just the way it went.

Another way it went was that some dads didn’t come home at all. When I was 8, my best friend Timmy came to school late one morning. At recess, he told me his father’s Prowler had received a weak catapult launch off the USS Constellation. He survived, but a crew member drowned. I wanted to talk to my father about it, but he was gone.

I couldn’t tell you many details about the dads in our neighborhood, but the mothers are etched in my memory. Mrs. Hardin blowing her whistle, calling her kids home. Mrs. Gardner, the exotic one, with a master’s in something. And Mrs. Hickey, a sweetheart who let us watch R-rated movies on sleepovers and brought us sandwiches while we played marathon games of Risk.

From the outside, my home was the same. Mom drove carpools and made my pals grilled-cheese sandwiches for lunch in the summertime. But when we were alone, our fights grew longer and louder. I was a classic attention deficit disorder kid, always bored and mouthing off at school. Mom was frazzled and alone. She signed up for the Navy life, the kids, and the moves, but she didn’t sign up for me. I was a problem she couldn’t solve. What did Dad say? Not much — he was a ghost even when he was home, staying up late planning flight schedules and solving maintenance issues with his planes. He urged her to be patient with me. Mom just rolled her eyes.

“You don’t have to be here 24 hours a day with him.”

She was right. Dad was a math whiz at the Naval Academy — legend has it he tutored Roger Staubach through calculus — and I was blessed with his brains, but not much else. I tested in the top percentile for IQ, but I couldn’t tie my shoes or really ride a bike without training wheels until I was almost 7. So Mom took me to a Navy psychologist when I was in first or second grade who told her, “I never met a kid so young trying to live up to his father.”

But what was I trying to live up to? He flew jets off a carrier and drove a white MG. He never missed Mass and said “son of a biscuit eater” instead of swearing. Me? I could screw up with the best of them. Once, I smuggled 100 firecrackers back to Oak Harbor in my suitcase from a family vacation while Dad was on cruise. Mom found out. She screamed through tears. “I don’t think your father has any idea what kind of son he has.”

That was definitely true. From my seventh through 13th birthdays, he was gone more than 1,000 days. He’d come home and we’d toss the ball around a little bit, Dad still in his flight suit, but I would catch him glancing at his gold Timex, and I’d cut it short.

The only two things I really knew about Dad’s own childhood were that he was an ace altar boy and paperboy. So I tried both. One Sunday, I staggered backward from the Bible’s weight during the final blessing. The congregation tittered — is he going to drop the thing? — until the priest announced, “I’m going to let the lad sit down before he hurts himself.” The paper route went a tad better, but Dad bought his mother a dishwasher with his profits, and I squandered it all on the five ice-cream sandwich lunch.

I tried to learn things as I went. Birds and the bees? Explained from some Swedish porn magazines I found while staying with another Navy family. In Webelos, I’d stand with hands clenched, not able to make my fingers move the right way to tie a bowline knot or build a catapult. At the end of the meeting, someone else’s dad would whip my project into shape, give a wink, and pat me on the head.

When I was 12, Dad left on another cruise. But this one was going to be different. He was about to be promoted to skipper of his own squadron — the Navy’s glamour job — and in six months I was going to meet him in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and we’d come back across the Pacific together, six whole days just him and me. I don’t know if it was because I was getting older or because another kid’s father had been killed six months earlier — my dad made me invite him to my birthday and made sure he scored lots of touchdowns — but I was afraid this time. I told him that the afternoon he left. He tousled my hair.

“It’ll be fine. Now try and get along with your mom, and don’t fight her on everything.”

That was the last time I saw him. In November 1979, a few weeks before my flight to Hawaii, hostages were taken in Tehran, and Dad’s carrier was turned around. On a training mission southeast of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, his plane just didn’t return. All that remained was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.

The thing about living without a father if he’s always gone is that it takes a long time to realize he isn’t coming home. Sure, there were the facts of his accident and a memorial service where 400 men and women sang Eternal Father, the Navy hymn “for those in peril on the sea.” But in my head, he was just on an endless cruise. He could have been picked up by an enemy ship, I reasoned; anything was possible. Mom felt the same way, and exhausted from looking out the window in Oak Harbor for her husband, she moved us to Flint, Mich., where she had a sister. I started at a Catholic high school — Dad would have liked that — and embarked on my journey toward the most spectacularly underachieving high school career.

All through those years, my dad’s planes sat on our mantel, next to a flag from a grateful nation. His photos haunted a house he never entered. We rarely spoke about him, except using the language of myth: American hero, died serving his country. But once I passed 36, his age when he died, I became increasingly obsessed with what lay behind the legend and the marker at Arlington Cemetery.

One of the privileges and curses of being a journalist is you can put your fingers in the wounds of your pain — in my case, my father. I started working on a book about Navy pilots. I filed a Freedom of Information request and got his accident report, I went to his 50th high school reunion, and I discovered a diary he kept at the same age I was when he was killed. And I spent two years following the men and women of VAQ-135, the Black Ravens, the squadron he commanded. The pilots even pulled a few strings and got me approved for a flight in the Prowler, Dad’s old plane.

All I had to do to was pass my VIP survivor-swim qualifications up at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. My understanding was that the classes were more for my amusement and education than an actual requirement.

This proved incorrect. At lunch, I was about to take my first bite when the lieutenant tapped me on my shoulder. Did I want to knock out my basic swimming qualifications next door in the pool?

Sure. Maybe it’s the memory of Dad tossing me into the waves headfirst on Cape Cod, but swimming has always been like hooking up to a Demerol drip for me — I loved it. This would be the easy part.

I changed into my trunks and met a civilian instructor in a blue windbreaker. He had grave, sad eyes. We shook hands. I would grow to despise this superficially harmless-looking fellow. He told me to swim 200 meters alternating between the breaststroke, the sidestroke, the backstroke, and the crawl. This would be easy. I climbed to the top of a 25-foot tower, crossed my hands across my chest, and stepped over the edge. The water felt good against my skin. I moved easily through it, taking about six or seven minutes to swim the distance. I was barely winded as I lifted myself out of the pool.

Mr. Instructor shook his head sorrowfully. He wore an expression frozen between contempt and pity.

“Your crawl was decent, but the rest of the strokes aren’t cutting it. You’re doing the breaststroke completely wrong. You’re giving a frog kick when I want a scissors kick. You’d drown in five minutes trying to do that stroke in full flight gear.”

Mr. Instructor requisitioned a squat Navy seaman named Nate. For a few minutes, Nate showed me the strokes. The Navy breaststroke was particularly vexing. The leg movement seemed the exact opposite of the breaststroke I’d been apparently doing wrong for my entire life.

“OK, now give it another try,” said Mr. Instructor. He glanced at his watch.

I jumped in. I started swimming. Mr. Instructor commenced screaming.

“No, no, the stroke is up, in, out, and glide. Up, in, out, and glide.”

I sputtered through the water, not drowning. I grabbed the side. Nate swam up next to me.

“Are you nervous?” “No, why?” “Both your arms are twitching.” He was right. My forearms were quivering. Sometimes this happens. I do well under pressure until I start thinking about the pressure.

Mr. Instructor sighed dramatically.

“Well, take a break. We can try this again tomorrow at 6 a.m., but if you don’t pass it, you can’t do the rest of the quals.”

I slinked out of the pool. What did he mean, the rest of the quals?

I soon found out. I stumbled back into the lecture room. An instructor was already giving tips about ejecting from a plane near the carrier. He chattered on about releasing from your parachute harness and steering your chute away from the carrier deck and the carrier’s backwash. This was, theoretically, good information, but I was too tired to really listen. This was another error. The brief ended. Navy technicians entered the room and began rigging a parachute to a previously unnoticed contraption hanging from a high ceiling.

A few minutes later, I was told to change into a flight suit. A heavy pack was hoisted onto my back. A too-large helmet was dropped on my head. I was hooked into a harness, and virtual-reality goggles were placed over my head. I was hoisted up a few feet and then dropped. Through the goggles, I saw my boots and body heading toward a cartoon carrier. Someone started shouting.

“1,500 FEET FROM THE DECK. WHAT DO YOU DO? ARE YOU TANGLED? 500 FEET FROM THE DECK. STEER AWAY!”

Instead I smashed into the deck. Someone laughed. “That would have hurt.”

I was given two more tries. I died the second time and was a probable quadriplegic the third. The helmet came off. I noticed sweat pouring from my earlobes, a malady I previously associated with habitual cocaine use.

I was led into another room. I climbed a ladder and was strapped into a mock cockpit. An instructor strapped me in with a canvas seat belt.

“This is going to test your ejection skills.”

“What ejection skills?”

My heart thumped through the apparatus. The instructor let out a shout — “OK, RELEASE!” — before my body was thrown backward at 150 mph. The cockpit shuddered before settling. At this precise moment, I had a thought: The dudes in the squadron are punking me! These are grown men who had been known to wait for hours so they could pour a garbage can of ice water on a friend while he sits on the toilet on the carrier. It was quite possible they had arranged an elaborate practical joke and everyone here was in on it.

They weren’t. A humiliating compromise was made: I would spend a week doing special-needs swimming to see if I could get up to par. I headed back to the base that evening. I had thought it would be cool to stay in the Bachelor Officers Quarters while preparing for my flight. The BOQ was where my family spent the first three weeks on Whidbey while we waited for our house to be finished. The building was essentially unchanged from 1974; it had the same squat three-story Warsaw Pact-era design, the only addition being televisions in each of the rooms. The place was designed to depress you so much that you would find your own place pronto.

I wandered these same halls when I was 7. One night I found myself lost, frantically trying random doorknobs until one opened. It was a young aviator, his flight suit draped over a chair. He was wearing nothing but his white T-shirt and briefs. He asked my name and then called down to the front desk. He asked for Peter Rodrick’s room number but told the operator not to ring through.

He took me by the hand and led me back home. The pilot opened my family’s room door and lifted me into my single bed next to my sister. My parents slept a few feet away. He held his hand to his face in the universal shush signal.

“It will be OK — just go to sleep.”

I repeated the pilot’s line to myself now: It will be OK — just go to sleep. But I couldn’t. From my third-floor room, I had an unobstructed view of the chapel where my father’s memorial service had been held. I lay on my bed for a while, calculating the minutes until I had to be back in the water, just as I used to count down with dread the minutes until baseball practice as a boy.

I couldn’t sleep, so I headed over to the base McDonald’s and self-medicated with grease. I drove over to the chapel and pulled into the exact parking space that we had parked our Buick station wagon on the morning of my father’s memorial service. It was where my family sat paralyzed afterward. I looked out my window and could see Laddie Coburn, my Dad’s best friend, standing there, telling my mother she could start a whole new life. And I saw my mother there, just whispering, “No.”

I stared at the taillights of Prowlers circling the base in the midsummer night. And I said over and over again, I am not trying to be my father, I am not trying to be my father. I’m not sure if I was saying it with pride or shame.

I did eventually pass the swim qual. The morning of my flight — a low-level training mission through the Cascades — I woke up and slid into my borrowed flight suit. I had an overwhelming fear: I was going to crap myself at 24,000 feet and four G’s. It happens to pilots. I’d heard tales of aviators returning from a long flight, stepping out of the cockpit, stripping naked, and throwing their soiled flight suit into the ocean. So I drove over to the drugstore, paced a bit, and finally picked up a four-pack of Depends and carried them weakly to the counter.

“For my grandfather.”

The counter woman said nothing. I quickly threw the Depends into my backpack, jumped into my car, and headed up to Whidbey. I turned off my iPod as I crossed over Deception Pass Bridge and switched over to the CBC station broadcasting from Victoria, in British Columbia; the drone of the always pleasant, inoffensive Canadian voices usually settled me down. But not today. My heart was pounding. I parked my car across the street from the squadron’s hangar and went over to Prowler Memorial Park, where the names of all the men and women killed flying the EA-6B were engraved underneath a decommissioned Prowler. I stopped and put my hands on my father’s etched name.

And then I started laughing. It was a moment of odd clarity: I was not going to fly in Dad’s plane wearing a diaper. I tossed the Depends into my trunk and headed in.

The flight? It was a blast, even if I did boot a spectacular yellow fluid while upside down near Mt. Rainier. The pilot needed to work on his touch-and-go landings after our mission, so we circled Oak Harbor a few times. I could see my old elementary school — the one where Timmy told me about his dad’s accident. And I could see the chapel where my dad’s memorial service was held. But neither really registered. From 3,000 feet up, they looked like just another school, just another church in just another town.

Rodrick is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Men’s Journal . For more information: themagicalstranger.com.