In loving memory Charles Breakfield
In 1962 my father went overseas as a military adviser to the South Vietnamese government for a year. Dad could have left us in Virginia, but Mom preferred moving us kids to her family in California. We loaded everything up into two vehicles and drove for a week to our new destination. My dad drove the station wagon, and Mom followed in the Buick Wildcat as the chase car. I planned to ride with Mom most of the time to keep her company and keep her from falling asleep at the wheel. As the oldest of three boys, I got shotgun.
The military assignments kept Dad on a tight schedule, required we travel to the west coast through Christmas, in the middle of the week. I brought my parakeet Max, but it was so cold that he didn’t make it. Dad stopped and took the time to help bury him at one of the rest stops.
Our destination was California, and we forgot Christmas was fast approaching. We stopped at a No-Tell-Motel for the night. There’s no room for a tree and lights in a Buick. Mom rushed us through baths and got us ready for bed while Dad went outside to organize the trunk. When he reentered the room, Mom hollered, “Merry Christmas, kids!”
We had a great time unwrapping and playing with our gifts, Dad called, “NO JOY.” That quiet statement persuaded us to power down for the night.
We arrived in Sacramento and bunked with Mom’s family until we could get to our new place in the country that Mom had found outside the city. Dad left for his duty assignment almost as soon as we unpacked. In our transient military family, Mom handled family logistics while Dad did the fighter pilot thing. We also had PX privileges on Travis Air Force Base, which helped financially. Mom handled the budget, too. While he was overseas, we weren’t allowed to live on the Air Force base—hence the farmhouse. But moving to the country was a difficult transition for us. We didn’t get to hang out with other kids of military families.
Our small farm and the surrounding croplands created a paradise for play and exploration for my brothers and me. Mom’s half brothers and sisters visited frequently, and Dad’s brother Cal stopped by to check on us often. We successfully experimented with raising some cows and chickens, learning a great deal about farming. The only real complaint resulted from the mice and rats inhabiting the house. I think that explained why the original owners moved, but that small detail didn’t appear in the lease’s fine print. I learned about my mom’s pellet gun ability. She solved home invasion issues decisively with her once-and-done shots.
The big deal for the week was getting a voice recording on a small cassette from my Dad. It was weird hearing his voice but not being able to see or touch him. We were obliged to record something to send back but I always got tongue tied and couldn’t say anything.
For entertainment, we pretty much had to invent our own. For example, Mom helped my Uncle Ray rig up a heavy-duty rope to the enormous tree in our back yard next to the house. Once securely tied high onto the tree trunk, he insisted he test it before my brothers or I could use it as a swing. Uncle Ray climbed to the second-story window, grabbed the rope, and swung like Tarzan in the jungle with the yell. Unfortunately, it was clear he had failed to correctly measure the length of the cord when he crashed with a flump into the ground—then silence. Mom remarked, “Too much rope, huh?” She exemplified her practicality in spades with that single comment.
Months later, our routine established, Mom answered the single wall-mount princess phone and shrieked at the end of the conversation. Odds are the party line across four counties heard her excitement. Mom explained that Dad had called. It turned out someone at the base in Saigon had pulled him aside and told him that the fully fueled aircraft at the side of the ramp wasn’t due back in combat service for ten days. The flight controller suggested the plane wouldn’t be missed if a certain Major borrowed it. But it had to be back within that window of time. Dad pulled on his flight suit and helmet, heading to the aircraft without even packing a toothbrush. He received a wink and a nod from his benefactor. The flight controller thoughtfully scheduled an in-flight tanker refueling for the trip. Dad flew to California, delighted that his surprise worked.
Mom was giddy as over-the-top excitement resonated in her comments with Dad on the ride home from the base. Conversations included, “What do you think, honey? And what a great idea, honey!” My mom, ever the romantic, embraced a reunion, heavy on the mushy stuff.
We did get a day during this trip that imprinted great memories for me. Dad doted on his boys and his wife. He asked us what we wanted to do, and our unanimous response was swimming. We didn’t have access to a pool, so the next option was to head into the hills and find a stream for water play. Playtime at an opulent hotel pool or in a muddy stream shared with a rancher’s cattle herd contained an identical fun factor for three young boys and their loving parents.
We loaded up the 1954 Buick station wagon and headed up the winding road looking for the ideal spot. The day was perfect. Goodies overflowed the picnic basket, promising food and fun in the sunshine. I noticed that Mom couldn’t stop looking at Dad and smiling. She loved having her family together.
After a couple of hours of searching secondary roads that climbed up and around, Dad announced, “Gang, we’ve arrived. Look—” He pointed to the right— “There’s a nice stream off the road. I can park the car here on the incline but off the road so people can get by. There aren’t too many cows hogging the water, so let’s go play.”
“YAY!” We boys cheered in unison as we piled out and ran down the hill.
Dad called, “Hey, slow down. I need to provide air cover in case one of the cows is a bull with an attitude.”
We dutifully stopped. Mom trailed, saddled with the towel and snacks. Then all hell broke loose. Mom screamed, “Charlie, the car is rolling! The brake isn’t holding! Help!”
You’ll never see a mortal like my dad drop everything from his hands and move into position to stop a 3,000-pound vehicle with his bare hands—just like in the Marvel Comics. I still see the furious, grim look of determination on his face as he positioned to pit his strength against the steel Detroit machine from rolling out of control. Except the car didn’t move.
Mom laughed hysterically and pounded on the hood of the station wagon, almost unable to breathe from the gag she had pulled. She howled, “Are you seriously considering trying to stop this monster wagon with your bare hands? Ha-ha-ha! If you can do that, let’s find a train for you to stop. Then I want to see you leap tall buildings with a single bound! Har-har-har!”
Dad, the unconditional gentleman, took the gag stoically. He said nothing as he escorted his boys to the stream. Comical water-playing antics filled the air with laughter, splashes, and non-stop fun. I remember looking up at one point to see Mom nuzzling on Dad, and him smiling. I know he graciously accepted the poke but still loved Mom. She rose to the level of Queen of quintessential teasing. We, including Dad, laughed over the years at the retelling of this tale.
The week ended in minutes, and Dad left. Mom grew quiet, and we all missed him. Six months later, he returned to re-unite our family. The second words we heard him speak included, “Let’s pack, guys. I’m due at the base in Clovis, New Mexico by the end of next week.”
Once we moved into our base housing, Dad said the move came with a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Mom bounced around excited because he earned the squadron commander role. Mom acquired the new role as the squadron commander’s wife. She expected she would help mentor the other pilots’ wives. She learned mentoring was the wrong word when her role focused on refereeing the other pilot wives. Apparently, alpha males, with fighter pilot characteristics, only marry dominant women. Aligned to the photo at the bottom of this article, Mom sat in an F-100 fighter jet holding his helmet, just like keeping his family together no matter where he worked.
Transitory movement from one school to another caught up with me. I fell behind in my studies and failed in several subjects. My math skills were the worst. Mom and Dad taught me mathematics and that memorizing the multiplication tables was vital if I was ever going to pass. Dad checked my homework. But Mom pulled me along for my math and English studies. For me, she coined the term—reading one page ahead of the class. I learned later in life she never finished school.
Like thousands of others, Dad grew up during the Great Depression. Times being what they were, my dad was sent to live with his grandmother. There were only two reasons you’re your family sent you to live with other relatives; one, they didn’t have enough food to feed you or two you were too much trouble. I suspect that in dad’s case it was the later. In his high school yearbook, he was given the title Expert, Expert by his classmates. Dad was self-taught in many things and always was interested in learning more. He insisted that his boys excel in their studies and finish school. I still recall the look in his eye and the conviction in his voice when I told him I had completed my MBA he replied “Good. Now how about that PhD?”
He was in his element when he was instructing. One day many years later he was providing shooting advice to my teenage daughters on the gun range. He had taught his wife to shoot, his boys to shoot, and now his granddaughters. My youngest daughter had made a mistake that day on the range that he had trouble trying to address so I am compelled to tell it here.
When shooting semi-automatic handguns, our new mantra is to not wear a low-cut, loose-fitting t-shirt that will act like a friendly refuge. She hollered that something was wrong, placed the gun down and grasped at her heart as though she had been hit by a ricochet bullet. A spent shell had been ejected into the air only to land down the front of Rachel’s top and lodged itself in her bra. Dad lunged to her assistance only to realize that he would be unable to retrieve said offending item. Rachel quite red with embarrassment waived him off but glared at me for letting her go shooting with clothes that catch hot shells. Remember the small things that you get to experience with your parents when growing up and even after you’re grown. Activities and events will pop into mind over time. These are some of my greatest memories of my dad.
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