I do not remember saying goodbye to my parents, but they had obviously driven me from Akron to Cleveland where I spent my first-ever night alone in a hotel. It was an old structure, with a rough rock-faced facade and a rickety elevator. The room was musty – a perfect petrie dish for my growing doubts and fears. Early the next morning I would board a plane for the second time in my life, but this time I would be alone.
I was eighteen, fresh out of high school and the following day I would be boarding a plane for San Antonio, Texas. One voice in my head shouted “What were you thinking?” while the other calmly said “You made the right decision.” I am not sure I ever really planned on joining the military. It just seemed to evolve as an unconscious decision.
My oldest sister joined the Air Force at a time when women had to measure up. She was required to submit an application with accompanying photographs — full front, profile and rear-facing. I remember her recruiter suggesting she shoot for becoming a computer programmer — it was the way of the future. She became a Communications Specialist instead; The same choice I would ultimately make.
My other sister joined the Army and my brother quit school and also joined the Army. That left me, the youngest sibling, at home alone dealing with a very difficult time in my parents’ relationship and ultimately my mother’s cervical cancer diagnosis. Money was tight. No senior photos, no yearbook — those were luxuries. I struggled my last year in high school, something very unfamiliar to me. Looking back, I am sure I was clinically depressed. I was sick on graduation day and did not attend. It makes me sad to reflect on those days.
Back in Cleveland, I boarded the shuttle and was dropped at the airport where I would start the first leg of my journey. I was Dallas bound. The passengers were all boarded, seated, buckled in and ready to go. Unfortunately, the plane was unable to take off on time. It seemed our landing gear had a flat tire. I remember the pilot’s jovial voice as he joked about a flat tire grounding an airplane. As a result of the delay, I missed my connecting flight from Dallas to San Antonio. I spent hours walking through the Dallas terminal admiring all the high-end shops, beauty salons and shoe-shine stations.
Eventually, about fifteen young women — all strangers — boarded the flight to San Antonio. Upon arrival, we filed off the plane and boarded a bus to Lackland Air Force base. It was just after midnight when I waltzed into a whole new world. It was close to 3:00 A.M. before in-processing was over and we made it to our dormitory. I climbed onto the metal-frame twin bed and fell fast asleep. We were spared early wake up due to our late arrival, but that did not last long. At 7:00 A.M. we were awakened by loud shouting voices and trash can lids being smashed together like cymbals.
I was dazed, tired and confused. It took several minutes before I remembered where I was.
The voice in my head was crystal clear. ”What the hell have you done?”
Somewhere I have a photo of me the day I left home to join the Air Force. I could not find it this morning, so this photo of me in the day room six months after basic training will suffice for now. (Notice the POW bracelet. I wore faithfully until my soldier came home.)