Whenever we go back to our nation’s capital, I try to spend some time walking among the graves at Arlington National Cemetery. When I walk among the graves I see familiar names, I recall stories of heroes, and I am reminded that these soldiers were sons and daughters and husbands or wives. I’ve been working on a book about Arlington, one with my photographs and my memories. Stories of the heroes buried, and heroes remembered. Some famous, some not.
Someday, I too will rest at Arlington. Someday. But I’m so not a hero like so many. I’m so not worthy. I’ll be there though. Maybe I can take the mid-watch? Maybe those heroes can get some rest and I’ll stand guard. I owe them that. I’ll join them at Arlington.
She will join them, too. She has always come with me. Why should death be any different? She’ll stand watch along with me. Standing as she has always done. Not in front, not behind, but together and by my side. And we will be by their side.
Woody Guthrie wrote “This land is Your Land” in 1940. He wanted a song for common folks. Woody wrote this song for you and me, but he was speaking of her.
“As I went walking, I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”
My gravestone at Arlington will have my name, rank, and a list of a few of the medals I was awarded. It might also be inscribed with “Vietnam” or the “Persian Gulf,” for the wars I served through. On the other side will simply have a name. Or maybe just “wife of.” What else should there be? Mother? Grandmother? But that’s not appropriate for just a wife. How about her many academic and professional accomplishments. None will be listed. Will the headstone cover the brilliant children she raised? Often alone? No. Nothing. Just white stone. Her headstone will simply say “wife of” when so much more should be said. She’ll be standing watch over the heroes of Arlington. Standing watch in her death as she stood watch over me in my life.
She was born on All Hallows Eve 1955 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
At sixteen, her father was conscripted and forced to fight in WWII for the Yugoslav Resistance. He was a prisoner of war in a Soviet/Serbian prison camp and nearly starved to death. His “death march” with fellow prisoners, rivaled that of the Bataan Death March. Of the 50,000 released prisoners, only 5,000 survived. “All the big men starved to death,” he’d tell me. He described how he held on to a horse’s tail as he marched because you could sleep as you walked. If you fell, the Serbian guards would just shoot you and move on. When the horse died, they would eat it and keep marching. Years later, he fled the oppressive rule of Tito’s Communism by walking from Zagreb over the Alps. Always off the roads and through the woods, and mostly in the dark. He walked 340 miles from Zagreb to Munich. He made three separate attempts. Companions were shot and he was caught and turned back twice and sent to jail. Finally, on the third attempt, alone, he made it. The map with his planned route lined in pencil to guide him. Today that map is one of our proudest possessions.
At twenty-one, her mother was forced to witness her mother and two others being marched into a nearby field, shot, and buried in a shallow grave. Three days later, her mother was forced to dig up the bodies and re-bury them. The whole village was forced to watch the execution as a reminder to not support the Germans. Her mother owned a small grocery store. “Of course, we sold to the German soldiers.” She said. “They were the only ones who had any money.” Now, at 94, her mother suffers no bitterness or remorse. Only love for the two daughters who continue her kindness.
In Germany while her father mined coal deep in the dark and underground, she learned German while playing with the other kids at the mining company compound. At the age of five, she immigrated to Cleveland Ohio. She started kindergarten speaking only German and not a word of English. You can imagine how exceptionally cruel kids can be. In less than a year, she moved again to Southern California where she entered the first grade. In the seventh grade she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. She lived in a body cast for a year to straighten her spine.
I met her in the summer after the 7th grade. She was the most beautiful person I had ever met. I never let her go.
She’s smart but takes nothing for granted. Learning comes easy. Easy that is, if all it takes is hard work. Hard work is all she’s ever known. Personally, I tend to be a bit lazy. By her standards, I’m a bit of a bum. Most of the time, I get tired just watching her.
Always reserved, she pretended not to notice me all through 7th grade. For years I never knew how she truly felt. Then at one of my cross-country meets in our high school junior year, I was yards behind the lead runner. Screaming, jumping up and down, I heard her. I finally heard her. Cheering me on like no tomorrow. I won the race. Later that evening I pressed her about ME! Her one true love. She simply said, “what ever do you mean?” Over several decades now, I’ve tried to understand her. I remain clueless.
She graduated high school in 1974. She was a good student. Her grades were consistently above average, but no subject stood out as a favorite. Back in the late ’60s and early seventies, girls were not permitted on the grass area at lunch (too dangerous!). Girls were also required to wear skirts or dresses, no pants. Miniskirts were the fashion and much to my preference, but it was not to be. They were strictly forbidden. The vice-principal would measure at random any girl who looked like her hem was more than 3 inches above the knee. In seventh grade, she wrote a letter to the Assistant Principal requesting a waiver to take woodshop. “Much too dangerous for a girl,” was the reply. Typing or stenography are much more appropriate. The reply was more than expected but the irony was a bit “in your face.” As I recall, the woodshop teacher, to whom the letter was also addressed, was missing two fingers from his right hand. “This was why he was teaching woodshop and not stenography,” I said.
While we attended public school together for Jr. High, my parents decided I needed to transfer to a Catholic School for High School. I’m not sure if my parents’ decision to send me to a different high school was for a better education or to separate us. Either way, it just was the way it would be. We learned to make the most of the change. Not knowing exactly what her future held, she graduated and was accepted to the nearby State University. As I’ve said in previous posts, her major would be in waiting. Waiting for me.
Her bachelor’s degree is in Mathematics and was ten years in the making. Birthing two and raising three children took all her waking hours. I say three because I was much more of a burden than Jennifer or Jason ever were. Each time she was on the verge of graduating, I would transfer duty stations and she would lose credits and need to retake a string of classes. Studying and going to class must have been done in her sleep. I began to see college as just a business. A business skilled at taking our money.
Sometime during our time in Omaha, sometime amidst all her classes, the Security folks were reviewing my “high-level clearance” paperwork when they noticed something. “Your wife’s a foreigner,” they said. “No! she’s a naturalized citizen,” I said. “Prove it,” they said. “Since she was under the age of twelve, she was naturalized by virtue of her parents’ becoming citizens.” “Yes, we know all this,” they said. “You listed her parents’ naturalization numbers and that all checks out.” “What’s her naturalization number,” they said. “But she was underage and didn’t need one,” I said. And so, the do loop started. It would go on for two more hours. At the end of the session I was convinced, I had married a foreigner. She wasn’t though, she was a bonified citizen. But we needed proof. She’d voted for Nixon for crying out loud!
So, we started down the immigration process to get her very own “naturalization number.” Calling her parents, we had them send her birth certificate, baptismal record, social security card, and any other documentation they could think of. With documentation in hand, we drove to the Immigration Office in downtown Omaha.
When we arrived at the Immigration Office, ten or twenty Hispanic people were in various stages of frustration. Slowly, we worked our way up the queue to the person at the window. Now, I’m not fluent in Spanish but I have heard a few words here and there. Being from Pacoima, California, it was important to learn to curse in multiple languages. So, one by one as the next person left the window, I improved my Spanish. Seemed like almost everyone was turned away for some document that was missing or incomplete. At least the immigration officer was bilingual and could speak Spanish even if their personality was as unfeeling as a vanilla milkshake. The ending conversation was always in Spanish and always the same. “Do you understand what’s missing and what forms you need?” said the officer. “Yes,” said the applicant. “Have a nice day,” said the officer. “Comer Mierda, “said the applicant.
Finally, language class over, it was our turn. Did you know that in Yugoslavia, a birth certificate and a baptismal record are interchangeable? No, you didn’t? Neither did the Immigration Office. “We’ll figure it out. We need to find someone who can read this. It’s not in Spanish? Leave it with us,” they said. “You can have a copy,” we said. “We need the original,” they said. “Comer mierda,” we said.
Eventually, things worked out and she would get her very own naturalization number. This was like gold. With it, she got a passport. Later it was the key to the security clearances she would need for employment. For her, the immigration process was horrible. She felt humiliated by some jerk clerk who didn’t care whose life she had interrupted. “Comer mierda.”
A few months before college graduation and while still living in Omaha, she flew to D.C. for a job interview. Degree assured she was ready to start her career. I was being transferred to D.C. and if she was going to start a career it would begin in D.C. “You mean they are sending me a plane ticket?” she said. “Yes, that’s how it works,” I said. “Put me up in a hotel?” “Give me money for lunch?” “Yup.” So, off she went. Upon landing at Washington’s National Airport, she promptly got lost. Long before GPS, she had a compass and map, written directions from ME, but still, she drove into another world. Have you ever made a wrong turn driving out of National Airport at night? Now she was lost, she had no cell phone, and was a stranger in a strange land.
The predominately African American neighborhoods encountered on your wrong turn are commonplace to scared tourists and lily-white visitors. After a bit of the “excuse me miss, you seem lost.” “Excuse me miss, you shouldn’t be here after dark.” They would give directions and have a good laugh. Just another scared and stupid white folk. “Who’s next?” She made it to her hotel but it was very late. When she called around 2 in the morning, it was all my fault. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you make a better map?” “I did” started to leave my lips but thankfully, “I’m sorry” came out. Genius under pressure I am — adapt or die a horrible death.
She nailed the interview. She landed the job. She was off to the races.
Once in D.C., with our children in school, she started her new career in a small windowless office in Falls Church, Virginia. Her office, such that it was, was on the third floor next to the breakroom. Everyone else worked in “the vault.”
At the time, little did she realize that being female, with a technical degree meant that her work environment would be like an episode of “Mad Men.”
But I’ll cover that next time. Look for “Her . . . again.” Coming soon.