Stephen Rodrick's family portrait with Theresa, Bargara, Stephen and father, Peter (1972), from 'The Magical Stranger.'
Credit: Courtesy Stephen Rodrick

In an airless stateroom aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, I find my dead father.

Somewhere off the Vietnamese coast, the roar of an F/A-18 Hornet shot from the carrier's number two catapult blasts me awake. Pilots learn to sleep through the bash and rattle of launches and recoveries. But I'm not a pilot, just a reporter, a tourist by another name.

Now, my father was a pilot. When I was a boy, he chased sky and sea off this very ship. One day, his plane dipped imperceptibly – a wing tapping the ocean – and disintegrated. All that remained was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.

Still groggy, I watch my roommate – a no-nonsense pilot – run a razor over his face and slap on aftershave. A moment later, the door slams behind him. I detect a familiar scent, one that is flinty and masculine. I jump down from the bunk and open the medicine cabinet. Inside is his blue bottle of Aqua Velva aftershave.

I remove the cap and inhale. The smell takes me back. It's May 28, 1979, in Oak Harbor, Washington. Upstairs in the master bedroom, Commander Peter Rodrick wears a white undershirt and briefs. Gray creeps in at the temples. He slaps on Aqua Velva and winces. He carefully places a speck of yellow toilet paper on his chin. He always cuts himself there. In the mirror, he catches me peering around the corner. I am 12. My fingertips are black from folding copies of the Seattle Times.

"What's the matter, knucklehead?"

"I don't want you to go."

"Why?"

"I'm scared."

"You've never been scared before. Scared of what?"

"Scared something bad is going to happen."

Dad tousles my hair.

"It'll be fine. Now try and get along with your mom, and don't fight her on everything. Even if you're right."

A few minutes later, he heads downstairs and kisses my mom. She carries my baby sister, Christine, not quite two years old. Mom is trying to be brave, but it doesn't come easy.

One afternoon when I was two, Mom made peanut-butter sandwiches for my older sister, Terry, and me in our small bungalow on Meridian Naval Air Station in Mississippi. She flipped on the TV and started watching 'Days of Our Lives,' but it was interrupted by a news bulletin reporting the crash of a Navy T-2 a few hundred yards short of NAS Meridian's runway.

The T-2 was Dad's plane. She turned off the television and tried not to go to pieces. A car pulled into the driveway, either Dad or the base chaplain. The door opened and there was my father, a bandage on his forehead, his flight suit ripped and blackened from ejecting.

That was five moves and four cruises ago. Barbara Rodrick has raised three children on her own while her husband has spent 1,100 days of the last six years at sea, making hundreds of landings on the Oriskany, the Forrestal, the Nimitz, and now the Kitty Hawk.

There are more lonely days ahead. Today, he leaves for a six-month deployment in the Pacific, his third cruise flying an EA-6B Prowler, a radar-jamming plane. He swears to her that this is the last one; next will be the Pentagon or some other shore duty. He promises he will be there for her. She believes him. He does not tell her he's applying for the space-shuttle program.

Her two girls are low-maintenance. I am not. I arrive a month premature, with my dad's brains but not much else. My chart reads "slight discoordination of his right side." That's an understatement. At school, I talk and talk, gulp air, and talk more. Fill-in-the-oval tests put me in advanced classes. Actual grades remove me from advanced classes. Listening eludes me, as do the intersecting laces of my shoes. (I can't tie my shoes or ride a bike until I'm six.)

It's time for Dad to go. Everyone loads into the car for the 15-minute drive to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Except me. I have papers to deliver. This isn't a small thing. Delivering papers is the only structure in my ADD/Dad-always-gone life. Mom thinks it's a good idea that I stay with my regular routine even on departure days. I don't argue. Car doors slam while I stuff rubber-banded papers into my carrier bag. Dad backs the wagon out of the drive and pulls away. I give a last wave. He doesn't see me.

Dad's dream comes true on the Fourth of July. Peter Rodrick will become commanding officer of his own squadron, VAQ-135, the Black Ravens. He will be just 36, one of the youngest skippers in the Navy. He's on the fast track, maybe all the way to admiral. But that's grown-up talk. All I know is that on December 10, 1979, I'm going to fly from Seattle to Honolulu and ride back to San Diego with Dad aboard the Kitty Hawk. The voyage will take six days, longer than I've ever spent alone with him.

Finally, there will be time. I can come clean about faking sick so I could watch the Red Sox – Yankees one-game playoff last October. The Sox are Dad's team. He'll understand. Finally, I can learn what my father does. I know he flies jets off carriers, but how? Finally, I can ask him why things seem so hard all the time.

In the days leading up to the trip, time passes slowly. The other wives come over almost every night. I watch Cathy Brown cry in Mom's arms. She is pregnant and scared. The other wives smoke cigarettes, drink Riunite, and talk about their absent husbands. Are they safe? Are they faithful?

Gray settles back over Whidbey Island. The illusion of summer is gone. At last, it is fall. We are down to numbers I can understand: 23 days, 22 days.... The Kitty Hawk drops anchor in the Philippines, just two weeks away from when we will depart for Pearl Harbor. I brag about my trip to customers when I collect for the paper. They smile, back away, and close their screen doors.

But on November 4, Americans are taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. I fold my papers and stare at pictures of blindfolded Americans. I don't connect the dots. Then, two weeks later, in the middle of a November night, Dad calls from the officers' club in Subic Bay. Mom says he wants to talk to me. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and cradle the phone. He says he's sorry. The boat is being turned around, off to the Persian Gulf, as a show of strength. I don't know what that means. I just know there will be no trip to Hawaii.

Dad's letters continue to arrive from somewhere in fits and spurts. They used to be marked on the back with the number of days until his return. Now he just circles the seal on the envelope with a question mark and an unhappy face.

Soon, it's the morning of November 28. Mom sleeps in; Chrissie has been up with the croup. By 11 am, I'm trying, unsuccessfully, to skate backward at the Roller Barn for eighth-grade gym class. I can tell you the electoral-college breakdown of the Carter-Ford presidential election and the status of Kenny Stabler's wobbly knees, but when it comes to the things that confer acceptance upon boys – hitting a baseball, building a catapult for Webelos, roller-skating backward – I'm hopeless. I need someone to show me how, someone to tell me that it really doesn't matter anyway. But that man is always 8,000 miles away.

So I fall on my ass. The cool kids snicker. My gym teacher calls me over. I'm relieved at first because it stops the laughing. But the teacher's permanently upbeat face has gone flat. She points to a man standing by the snack bar. He wears a black uniform and carries a white hat in his hand. It is Lieutenant Commander Laddie Coburn, Dad's best friend. I slowly skate over and sit down on a bench. He hesitates, sits down next to me, and puts a hand on my knee.

"Your father has been in an accident."

He says there's hope; the helos are still looking. I do not believe him. I am now 13, and I've grown up around the Navy. If they haven't found him by now, they aren't going to.

He drives me home, and the world rushes toward me hotter and faster than ever before. I choke back vomit. We arrive at the house on North Conifer Drive. This time, the chaplain's car is in the driveway. Inside, the wives have already gathered. They smoke Virginia Slims and laugh without conviction. Mom, just 37, looks different; she became old the moment the doorbell rang.

Later that day, it is confirmed that Commander Peter Rodrick and three crew members, Lieutenant Commander William Coffey, Lieutenant James Brown Jr., and Lieutenant Junior Grade John Chorey, are dead, 63 miles southeast of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. There are no bodies to recover. The men leave four widows and seven children under the age of 15.

I still deliver my papers. Almost done. An old crone who never tips steps into her weedy yard. She wraps me in a hug. She heard about Dad on the news. Her tears drop onto my last remaining newspaper. The blot grows and expands, obliterating words.

It's dark now. I put my bike back in the garage, next to Dad's shrouded MG. I slip past the grown-ups, up the stairs, and into my parents' bedroom. I breathe in deeply. Nothing. I frantically look in the medicine cabinet and then under the sink, but the bottle, and the smell, is gone.