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

Names and faces long past swirled through my head the night I visited Whidbey. One of them was Timmy's. Timmy was my best friend when I was five. He was a curly-haired boy whose dad was also a pilot. We met in Monterey the year I fell out of the car. There were playdates with Hot Rods and whispers across blue mats during kindergarten nap time. Our friendship was typically Navy, intense and sporadic. After kindergarten, his dad was sent off somewhere and my father to NAS Alameda, outside of San Francisco. Timmy just disappeared one day. That's just how it went.

Three years later, I found myself in Mrs. Hunt's third-grade class at Clover Valley Elementary, just outside NAS Whidbey's gates. We had just arrived in town. It was the first day of school, and, as usual, I knew no one. A finger tapped me on my shoulder. I spun around. There was Timmy in a white turtleneck.

His dad was flying Prowlers, too! For little boys, our reunification was a profound miracle, too fantastic to contemplate. We became inseparable, chattering over cheese pizza, CCD, and Cub Scouts. Nothing could part us.

Then, one damp January morning, Timmy came to school late. His father's Prowler received a weak catapult off a carrier on the other side of the world. Not having enough power to maintain altitude, his dad and his crew ejected from their plane. Tim's dad survived, but a crew member drowned. Timmy told me about it while we played foursquare at recess.

We were eight.

It's funny what passed for normal. Planes crashed, and dads were gone; sometimes it was four kids to one father at our Boy Scouts campouts. Mom and me fought constantly. When I'm 11, Dad screens for command. It's almost my 12th birthday. Dad goes away for a month. There's going to be a party with my buddies Billy and Eric and Timmy. Then something terrible happens. There is a boy down the street named David Bruce. He is a year younger than me and has the only buzz cut in the neighborhood. I know he wants to be my friend, and we play one-on-one football in his front yard, one of the few games I can win since I outweigh him by 30 pounds. I meet his dad after one of our games, working in his garage. He doesn't smile.

But David and I had a falling out over something stupid, or maybe he just got tired of me being mean to him. I see him on the school bus, but we never really talk. Then, a few days before my birthday, David's father is killed in an A-6 accident off the USS Ranger. I hear the news, but it doesn't register. Dad comes into my room on the morning of my birthday.

"I want you to invite David Bruce."

"C'mon, Dad, he'll ruin it."

"I'm not asking you – I'm telling you."

I call David's house. His mother answers in a shaky voice. I ask her if David can come over later for my party. She starts crying on the phone, babbling "thank yous" through tears.

David shows up a few hours later in a too-big blue windbreaker that belonged to his dad. He gives me a hastily wrapped stapler as a present. I begin to roll my eyes, and Dad shoots me a death look. I say thank you. We have cake, and then we play football in the backyard. Dad makes sure David scores a touchdown. It is my last birthday with my father.