His friends call him "Norm". His grandkids call him "PaPaw". His children call him "Dad" and when he is a bit tough, driving us hard or we feel sentimental, we call him "Sarge" -- short for Technical Sargeant Norman O. Tumlinson, United States Air Force.
You see, my dad (like every vet I have ever met) is heavily defined by his military service. They are soldiers. It is not something they did. It is not a job they held. It is who they are. It is a unique and obviously powerfully transforming experience that in every case has changed them and their lives forever.
And you can see it in them. Vets are different than other people. Frontline or support, they carry themselves differently than the rest of us. It is as if they entered the service as one person and came out another, and that is the person who they are the rest of their lives.
My dad of course was not always Sarge. The pictures of him as he entered the Air Force in 1951 are of a handsome young guy (with all his hair) who has a bit of a dash and swagger to him. That was before basic training, where they take the swagger and cockiness of kids just rolling out of their teens and turn it into something solid, a maturing process like the annealing of steel from raw metal.
After training he was selected to become an electrician. He soon found himself in England, where he met my mother at a dance, and like so many American GIs brought home a new soon to be U.S. citizen.
This was the height of the Cold War and he was sent to work in the Strategic Air Command at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, home of the famous command center and flying command posts. I recall that time, during alerts, as he would grab his gear and be gone, or we would find ourselves doing duck and cover exercises as sirens wailed. A scary period to be sure, but somehow, being a military kid in a military family, I never felt any fear... that's just how it is in that world. Yes sir, can do. And that is not just the soldiers, it's the whole family.
Often he had to go away on tours of duty (TDY) for months or more, Ethiopia to train the Air force of Emperor Haile Selassie, Greece to work on aircraft following the Soviet Fleet and yes, a lot of time in the Vietnam War. He became an expert on the venerable B-52s and went off to Guam in the Pacific, supporting bombing missions over North Vietnam. Next was Thailand for an extended tour, in support of F-4 Phantoms flying recon and combat in the war.
In that theater he came into as close contact as most military personnel ever do with the realities of combat, dealing with damaged aircraft and crews as they returned, fixing them back up and turning them around sometimes in mere hours. It must have been an intense time as became clear only a few years ago at Christmas when my brothers and I gave him a large die cast replica of one of those jets. He opened the box carefully and held the beautiful model in his hands as tears came to his eyes and he began to speak of the heroes he knew who had flown those missions, some of whom never came back.
It was during our time in California that I finally "got" something very important about the military. You see, like most kids I was enamoured of the frontline soldiers and pilots, and jealous of my friends on base whose dads were jet pilots and aces. I was sad my dad wasn't one of them, that somehow we were second class, that he was just a supporting player and all the glory went to others. Until something happened that changed my understanding, and shifted my view of the entire military.
It was the summer of 1968 or so and dad and my little brother were out camping. While up in the mountains my brother was bitten by a rattle snake. As they raced back to the base my dad sucked out the venom and used his hands a as a tourniquet and probably save his life, for it was serious bite and he was just a little kid.
Unfortunately, the base hospital didn't have the right anti-venom available, meaning he might lose his hand. What I didn't know and didn't understand till later was that to save him fighter jets in Alaska were scrambled to carry a vial of the liquid to California. Within hours the medicine arrived, by acting so quickly his hand was saved.
You see the military takes care of its own. But I didn't know what that really meant, and certainly not the bigger meaning of what had happened, until one day a couple of years later when I was talking to the base Commander in England, a well known jet pilot and my best friend's father about the incident. I said I couldn't believe they had done that just for a Sargeant's kid.
The commander smiled and said: "Son, the Air Force isn't just us pilots. Those guys who flew that medicine to save your brother did it because they know who puts them in the air and keeps them there -- and that is your dad. We're a team. Without him and his crew out there on the flightline we don't fly. We may get the glory, but he is our hero."
I never felt bad about his job again after that. You see, the U.S. military is a team. The finest, most highly trained and cohesive fighting force in the history of the world. It is a finely tuned machine with a million moving parts, and each is critical. Whether your father, husband, son or brother has been on the front lines, driving a computer or programming a tank, wielding a gun or a wrench, they are a team. No one moves, no one wins without everyone doing their job. The aces and combat soldiers may be the "tip of the Spear" but there is no spear without the hundreds and thousands of other soldiers who make it fly and strike home.
After he retired, dad worked at my uncle's boat company, a camp for kids and eventually became County Commissioner for a term. He is known around town, works at the Food Pantry my mother helped start and is a very serious member of Kiwanis. He is a nice guy, someone you might say hello to at Wal-Mart or run into at the auto parts store, and he looks just like any senior citizen wearing a baseball cap and a smile.
But to us he is still "Sarge". It is a name we used as kids sometimes out of frustration when he pushed us to excel, to work hard and be honourable, but now it is used out of respect, and said with a smile.
Yet to my family and I he is a hero. He is an American soldier.
He is a Vet.
And yes, he is and always will be Sarge.
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