Stephen Rodrick's family portrait with Theresa, Bargara, Stephen and father, Peter (1972), from 'The Magical Stranger.'
Credit: Courtesy Stephen Rodrick
An hour before my father's memorial service, a family friend slips me a tablet, probably Valium, leaving me with a detached, third-person feeling for the rest of the day. At the chapel, four caps sit on the altar. Three of the wives are quiet, but Cathy Brown, now the widow of Lieutenant James Brown Jr., loudly bleeds grief, holding a tiny daughter who will never know her father. There are no coffins, but much talk of a loving God. More than 400 people sing "Eternal Father," the Navy anthem to "those in peril on the sea."

Afterward, my family sits mute in our station wagon. Laddie Coburn leans through an open window and tries to console Mom.

"C'mon, Barb, you can start a whole new life." Her response is a whisper. "No."

Mom kept her word. It's three decades later and she makes coffee for one, pouring Folgers into a 30-year-old coffee mug. The cup is chipped and discolored with long-ago lipstick traces. The Black Ravens squadron logo is faint and the name "Pete" fades a little more with every wash. It is 2009, and Mom is now 67. She lives outside Flint, Michigan, where she moved our family after Dad's accident. An arthritic knee slows her down, but she still possesses the quick laugh and wide brown eyes that made my father fall in love with her 50 years ago. There's the toothy smile and the southern fake swear words: "Judas Priest" swapped for "Jesus Christ."

I have not been the greatest son, but I know what matters to her. Earlier that year, I sent an email to VAQ-135, my dad's old squadron. I was looking for new coffee mugs. The squadron's commanding officer, Commander Brent "Doogie" Breining, wrote me back. He thanked my family for our sacrifice – this happens a lot – and noted that his change-of-command ceremony would occur on July 2, 2009, two days short of the 30th anniversary of my father's taking command of the Black Ravens. Would I like to come out to Whidbey Island for the ceremony?

There would be a formal dinner the night before, and the next day, there'd be a change-of-command ceremony when Commander James Hunter "Tupper" Ware would formally relieve Doogie. Afterward, I could get a tour of the base and even sit in the cockpit of a Prowler, Dad's old plane still in service 30 years later.

Breining's invitation frightened me. Some historians trace the start of the War on Terror to November 4, 1979, the day the hostages were taken in Tehran. That would make Dad's crash one of the first American collateral casualties. Thirty years later, fathers still fly Prowlers off carriers. Their sons still skate at the Roller Barn. The war goes on and on. All that changes are the welcome home signs. But my family surrendered long ago. We fled that world, refugees never speaking of our destroyed homeland.

A colleague once nicknamed me – half mocking – the "magical stranger" because I get people to tell me things. But to me, the magical stranger has always been my father. He was brilliant and unknowable, holy but absent, a born leader who gave me little direction. Peter Rodrick was one of only around 4,000 men in the world qualified to land jets on a carrier after dark. And he was an apparition, gone 200 days of the year from when I was six until he died. He was such a ghost that I didn't fully accept he was gone for years.

Evidence of the actual man was harder to come by. His pictures hung on our walls, but Mom never talked about him. Most of my father was locked away in cruise boxes and crates in our basement: a framed picture from the Brockton Enterprise of a boy with a pole on the first day of fishing season; a long black leather sleeve holding a sword, and a small metal box containing envelopes with single dollar bills sent to him on his birthday by his father, the envelopes still coming for years after he died.

Over the years, I had made some tentative steps at connecting with Dad, but they always ended in sadness. I visited his marker at Arlington National Cemetery twice when I was in Washington as a college kid. I would climb the hill up to his section and sit down on the hard ground. I'd pick out the dirt that lodged between letters reading in memory of Peter Thomas Rodrick Cdr US Navy Jan 6 1943 – Nov 28 1979. I'd cry and flip a middle finger at tour guides droning on about Audie Murphy in passing trolleys. I never told my family.

So I left Dad in a cardboard box full of photos I kept in a room I rarely used until Commander Breining's invitation. I vacillated for weeks, staring at the ornate lettering of the official invitation. In the end, my new girlfriend Alix's curiosity about my past pushed me to buy two airline tickets just a week prior to the ceremony.

An hour after landing, we pulled on to the Mukilteo ferry, an idyllic 20-minute voyage from suburban Seattle to the southern tip of Whidbey Island. It was a trip I'd made dozens of times as a child. The afternoon was a "blue-sky day," a Navy term for endless visibility, just like the day of Dad's accident. Alix dozed while I squinted through the glare and thought of Dad's losing perspective between sea and sky – one of the many theories for his crash.

I spotted a woman struggling with two small children in the car ahead of us. Her Subaru station wagon had a fly navy bumper sticker and was packed with toys and luggage. I guessed she was returning home after visiting relatives while the children's father floated on a different ocean.

The woman looked to be about Mom's age when she became a widow. Barbara Rodrick was 37 and still beautiful when Dad's plane crashed. She has been on zero dates since "the mishap," as the Navy likes to call plane crashes. I felt this was heroic when I was younger, her terminal fidelity a fitting coda to my father's own bravery. As an adult, I began to think it was beyond sad. We approached the island. The ferry's loudspeakers instructed drivers to return to their cars. Up ahead, the woman expertly wrangled her hyperactive son into his car seat as he kicked and thrashed.

The boy jarred something in my memory. When I was five, Dad was studying for a master's degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. One day, my sister and I were riding in the back of our blue Chevrolet station wagon as Mom ran errands. This was in the time before mandatory seat belts, much less car seats. I tried to crank down the window with my tiny fingers but pulled the wrong handle.

The door opened, and I tumbled onto the asphalt. Somehow, Mom didn't notice. Luckily, I landed on the curb side of the road. The passing cars looked like motorized dinosaurs from the ground. A block or two away, Mom looked in the rear window and screamed at Terry.

"Where's your brother?"

"He fell out back at the light."

Mom turned the station wagon around, squealing rubber.

She pulled up in front of me and jumped out of the car. Her hands were shaking but her bouffant hairdo was still perfect. She dusted me off, looked around to see if anyone she knew was watching, and whispered in my ear.

"Do not mention this to your father."