“Kwajalein?” my father said. “I’ve been there.” This was the birth of the Kwajalein story.
Sometime before Reagan took office, my father got tasked to go on a trip to a military installation on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. He wasn’t in the military himself. He was a computer technician for the now long gone computer company, Data General. The U.S. government used a Data General computer for radar displays and they seemed to have a problem with the system that no one on the island could fix.
“Who wants to go to Kwajalein?” my dad’s boss must have asked. I don’t know if he was the first to raise his hand or the only one, but I think the reason he did was that my dad had never been anywhere. Unlike myself and his father, my dad didn’t serve in the military and, at this point in his life, I think he had only traveled out of the country with his grandmother to Mexico City as a child. On this day, he jumped at the opportunity to go to some far away place he had never heard of.
He made his way to Kwajalein via Hawaii. The man who picked him up asked him if he wanted a tour of the island before getting to work. “Sure,” my dad said. Twenty minutes later, they were back where they started. It was a small island. This is one of the highlights of the story when my dad tells it.
The computer was an easy fix, and my father caught a flight back to Hawaii the very next day. While in Hawaii, my dad called his boss notifying him of the status. The boss, impressed that my father was able to fix the computer without any problems, offered to cover expenses for a couple of days in Hawaii as a reward.
The next phone call my Dad made was to Mona, my mother.
“The boss is offering to let me stay for a couple of days on the company,” he said to Mona with enthusiasm. I am making an assumption here about his enthusiasm but think about it. This young man, practically still a boy, started with the company in the warehouse fresh out of high school and worked his way up to the position of a computer technician. And now, after being sent to a remote government installation and saving the day, was being rewarded with a couple of nights stay in Hawaii. I would have said it with enthusiasm.
“Get your ass home,” was Mona’s response. He was on the next plane back to LA. This is the other highlight of the story when he tells it, though he leaves it out now when I’m around. I had long ago requested that the slandering of my mother not be a part of our family gatherings.
The first time I ever heard my father tell the Kwajalein story was when I got back from Iraq in the fall of 2005. We stood in the driveway of his Missouri home and chatted. So what now, he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “I heard they need HVAC guys some place called Kwajalein.” That’s when my dad said, “Kwajalein? I’ve been there.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this damn story now. It’s to the point that I interrupt him and say something like, Yes, we’ve heard this story a thousand times. He’d get defensive and say, “(So and so) hasn’t heard it?” So and so was usually someone my brothers or I were currently dating at the time. To which So and so would look at my father and then, as gently as possible, nod her head and say, yes I have.
“The hell with you then,” he’d say to no one in particular but probably to me.
“No,” my younger half-brother would say. “Go ahead and tell it.” And of course, he told it. “You forgot the best part,” my little brother said, putting a fist to his ear as if he was holding a phone. “The part about Mona telling you to ‘get your ass home.’”
I don’t remember my dad ever relaying any stories about his past before that first telling of the Kwajalein story in his driveway. I feel like that story opened him up to tell others. Of course, he had to be well lubricated in order to tell them. The storytelling usually takes place during family events when his adult children are home. We all sit around the kitchen counter getting shit-faced and before too long the stories come.
I’m tired of hearing those other stories too but I’m not ungrateful for them. There’s the Mexico City story, where his grandmother bribed soldiers at checkpoints. The time he and his friend got their bikes stolen and my grandfather took them out looking for said bicycles. They found them too. “Get on your bikes and get the hell out of here,” My grandfather told my dad and his friend. The thieves chased them all the way home but turned around when they got stared down by my Nina, my dad’s older brother’s wife. She stood on the porch with her fist on her hips as if to say, Do we have a problem here?
I guess the best part of the Kwajalein story is the connection to my grandfather who died when I was very young.
I get conflicting stories about how he was injured during the war. I heard it was from a German grenade and later, I heard it was German artillery. Either way, tucked away somewhere in my Tio’s Mesa, Arizona home is the Purple Heart they awarded him for his injuries in the Pacific. After his initial aid, my grandfather was evacuated to Kwajalein where they wired his jaw together and kept him until he was stable enough to make the journey to Hawaii where he stayed for the duration of his recovery.
I’m not exactly sure how it went down so many decades ago, but I have to imagine my grandfather must have asked his son what he had been up to. “I just got back from Kwajalein,” my father must have said as he looked into his dad’s eyes just as I had been looking at him on the fall day in Missouri, clueless as to what our fathers’ lives were like as young men.
“Kwajalein?” my grandfather said. “I’ve been there.”