It was a beautiful golden day that only September in Alaska can give to you. As I whooshed through the wet underbrush I’d occasionally glance back at companions equally focused on harvesting cranberries: in one direction was my Beautiful Saxon Princess toting our newborn younger son in a kid-pack while vainly trying to simultaneously pick berries and keep up with our wandering two-year old; in the other directions our friends with their toddlers a little farther off. I looked past them to Pioneer Peak, then in the opposite direction to the Sleeping Lady. Autumn in Wasilla – life couldn’t get any better.
Suddenly my digital wristwatch chirped, shaking me out of my reverie. I looked down to see the small screen flash [09/07/81] with a small star to the right of the numbers …but I was totally baffled at the information on the display
- Why was the alarm going off at 2:00 in the afternoon?
- Why was tomorrow’s date on the display?
- What did the little star signify?
…then I remembered that I had set my watch for Zulu time during the alert earlier in the week and that 2:00/14:00 was midnight in Greenwich England. As for the little star – why was the 7th of September important?
There is nothing sadder than a second lieutenant trying to be dignified so I was glad that I was off-post, in civilian clothes and effectively unidentifiable as I periodically shivered with the sheer joy of being stationed at FT Richardson Alaska.1 It was my first break in the whirlwind of in-processing and with my little family staying with my parents down in Sterling our quarters on post were a little too empty so I drove into Anchorage for the evening to visit my old stomping grounds.
First on the list was the McDonalds on Northern Lights Boulevard – a destination for my family during trips up from the Peninsula as well as the last stop on the way south for the team bus after playing Anchorage schools. As I stood in line I tried to picture my football cronies around me and noticed with a start a bespectacled redhead guy who looked very familiar.
As I gave my order I mentally thumbed through the travel squad:
No – none of the names fit.
None of them either – and when I looked up the red-headed guy was walking around the corner into the dining area. Ever curious I decided to exit using the door on that side of the building and as I walked past I saw him sitting with his young family. As I walked past his wife looked up and our eyes locked.
It was my (former) Best Friend.2
Life had been a blur: I had no sooner finished in-processing when I was sent to Snowhawk ( Arctic Warfare Orientation) followed immediately by NBC (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Warfare) course…and after that I was so busy getting my platoon organized that the chance encounter at McDonalds had been forgotten.
I was so distracted that I barely heard the heads-up my Beautiful Saxon Princess gave me about a church auxiliary leadership meeting to be held in our home …which would include “one or two people you already know”. I idly thought about the kids I’d gone to church with at the old 11th and E street chapel almost twenty years earlier and wondered which of the pig-tailed little girls had grown up and would be in our home tonight.
I totally missed The Look.
The night arrived and it came to pass that as I was worshipping in front of the soldier’s altar of Corcoran jump-boots, KIWI shoe polish and old diaper I heard hesitant footsteps first climb the stairs to our bathroom then come to a stop outside the study door. I stopped polishing and strained to hear anything, then got up and walked to the door to come face to face with my (former) Best Friend for the first time in seven years. The intestinal Stukas went into action making me wonder if I could ever be heard over the gurgling of my stomach, and I reached back to scratch my neck – not because it itched but to buy time to think of something suave and sophisticated to say.
She replied softly “Hello David” and we stood there for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries dancing around what we were really thinking while I feigned indifference and struggled to keep my inner dialog inner:
“It was so long ago I can hardly remember the actual break-up”
“Yeah” (Well I do: the 11th of December 1973. 9:37 PM Mountain Standard time)
“We were both so young and inexperienced with relationships.”
“Yeah” ( I am so glad I kept my mouth shut about Debbie)
“Your wife is so sweet and so pretty”
“Yeah” ( Too bad you…Yeah)
…and then another potty-seeking lady started up the stairs behind us bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt and sending us back to our respective lives and families.
My company commander peered at me over the rims of his BCGs3
“You know LTD this is (bleeping) perverse. Once you break up with someone you don’t stay friends. What the h*ll am I do with an executive officer that has obviously lost his mind.”
Captain Kay’s carefully cultivated coarse exterior cracked for a moment and his eyes softened:
” Seriously Dave, what do you hope to accomplish by taking your family on an outing with your old fiancé and her family? You’re a soldier – what do they say about opening old wounds?”
To be completely honest I had no idea, just that it seemed the right thing to do when my Beautiful Saxon Princess presented the plan earlier in the week to go cranberry picking with my Former Best Friend and her family. In the past year we’d dipped out toes into the “just friends” pool and it seemed to work OK, in fact rather than opening old wounds it made me appreciate my Beautiful Saxon Princess even more. It all had all worked to make life even more “OK” as I stood out in the cranberry bushes looking at my beeping, flashing digital wristwatch.
[09/07/81]? I finally remembered. I’d first met my Former Best Friend on the 7th of September 1971. Why I’d had it programmed in my watch I will never know, but as I stood there in the golden autumn sunlight I thought to myself.
” It was such long time ago, but I remember that all we wanted was to be happily married someday and it looks like we got what we wanted. We’re both married – albeit to different people – and yes, I am very, very happy”
I looked down at my watch, pushed the program-button until the [09/07/81] disappeared, permanently erased then carried my bucket of cranberries over to the car.
- FT Richardson had been my first introduction to the Army when I spent time there as a military rug-rat when we lived across town in Spenard and then later when we’d drive up from the Kenai Peninsula
2. See 1972: Subterranean Spring Break
3. BCG’s: birth control glasses. Army-issue black horn rim glasses that reportedly make the wearer so unattractive that no one would ever reproduce with them.