In my dream, I am in an Air Force dormitory room surveying my clutter. My clothing is strewn around the floor and black socks and white boxers tumble out dresser drawers. I am anxious because this is the day I will be discharged from the Air Force and I need to have the room cleared for inspection. Vaguely, I know I have to be wearing my blue uniform to be discharged but I don’t see it in the closet.
Sometimes, in my dream, I am searching for a supply store where I might purchase a uniform so I can be properly dressed when the squadron commander tells me I can leave.
In another dream, I am told I owe the Air Force one more month of service because, years ago, I was relieved of duty at the end of August to begin college in September. When I arrive at some undefined Air Force installation, post-pubescent airmen stare at me in puzzlement.
If the dream continues, I’m told my one-month extension is over but I’ll have to wait until my discharge can be processed and that might take, well, years …
It’s not unusual to dream about the past. “A pension,” wrote Eric Hoffer, the stevedore poet, “is pay for the work we keep doing in our dreams after we retire.”
But how long must the dreams continue?
I was discharged from the Air Force in 1968 and immediately began classes at Eastern University (then Eastern Baptist College). In the ensuing decades I became an editor for American Baptist Churches in the USA, reported for two daily newspapers, became a communication officer for the World Council of Churches and finally retired as a media relations officer for the U.S. National Council of Churches.
Chronologically, the four years I spent in the Air Force (1964-1968) were a tiny portion of my three score and thirteen. My college years were as momentous as my military years but I rarely have the archetypal academic anxiety dream, i.e., that I am about to take a final exam for a course I have cut all semester. Clearly, if my dreams mean anything, my Air Force years stick in my unconscious craw.
I’m not sure why this is because my military experience was unexceptional and, for the most part, pleasant. I was a chaplain’s assistant serving in England and Kansas and, when the time came, my leaving did not resemble the anxious foreboding of my dreams. I just left. I walked out the door of the McConnell Air Force Base chapel one morning and stepped into a large camper driven by my father and, like that, my Air Force days were over. (My parents and siblings were touring the west because brother Larry was visiting the University of Colorado and they arranged their return trip to pick me up on the way home.)
Clearly, though, my Air Force days were not over “like that” and that is why I have these dreams every few months.
I blog incessantly about my Air Force experiences. Reading back over those blogs (links below), it’s obvious my military years were exceedingly ordinary. When people ask me if I flew an airplane in the Air Force, I reply, “I flew a desk.” I typed my way to victory in the Cold War.
But I think it’s the ordinariness of my military experiences that place them so firmly in my unconscious. In a modest sense, they have melded with the larger American experience.
I only saw my grandmother cry once. Goldie was a stalwart and generally unemotional woman who raised my father and his three siblings with determined common sense. It so happened she was visiting us when the time came for me to fly to England for a three-year Air Force assignment. My parents drove me to the Syracuse airport, and when the time came for me to board Dad shook my hand. Mom hugged me tightly. And Grandma, when she hugged me, had tears in her eyes.
I was stunned because she was not the crying type. And because I was a callow 18 year old I thought she was crying for me.
As the years passed, however, I realized she was crying because my departure in uniform brought back agonizing memories. A quarter of a century earlier she had bade good-bye to two sons who went to the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. Both were heading toward a treacherous and uncertain future and she must have been scared to death. In contrast, I was heading for a desk in a chapel.
Dad and my Uncle Stan returned safely from their wartime duties. Their experience has been shared by millions of men and women since the inception of the American colonies: the call to uniform, the saying good-by, the return – if God willed – to civilian life. It continues today with no end in sight.
It’s a part of the collective consciousness of America. And I’m not the only veteran who will dream about their military experiences, however traumatic or however ordinary, for the rest of their lives.
More of my Air Force memories are posted here: