Searching for my fathera story of loss, longing, and closure
Searching for my Father
Growing up, Father’s Day was my least favorite holiday. Even President’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day were better than this one. Some of you probably feel the same way. Thinking about fathers may drudge up painful memories or perhaps no memories at all. Celebrating family relationships can be an emotionally draining venture—we may end up grieving for something lost, something that should have been, or something that we never had. We are children of a great Heavenly Father, and ultimately, that is the conclusion to every story and the purpose of every story, including this one.
GROW UP IN HIS PRESENCE
My parents were Bruce and Barbara Walley. I have a brother Mike, who is older than me by 2.5 years. My parents were believers, and although they were new in their faith, they established Christian principles in our home, so I had the privilege of being raised to know and love God and serve Him. That has made all the difference in my life.
I am sure that I had learned to say “Daddy” before I was 2 years old, but I don’t remember ever saying it. I don’t remember hearing my Dad’s voice or feeling what it was like for him to hold me, although I’ve seen some pictures where he was holding me. They are pretty wonderful pictures. In fact, without the pictures I have of him, I would have no recollection of what he looked like at all because I have only one memory, in which he is a dark fuzzy mass, lying on the floor underneath my brother, who was straddling him. I was straddling my brother and cheering. I think there was some laughing and tickling going on. My mother has told me that we often wrestled in this fashion, piling on the floor after dinner. I’m sure I would not remember this particular occasion at all, nor would it have any significance in the fabric of my childhood memories except that it is my only living memory of him. Less than 4 months after my second birthday, my father was killed tragically in a Naval air training mission.
Every child wants to grow up with his father and know his father, even the children who hate their fathers want to know and be known by their fathers. God made us this way. He put the same mechanism inside of us so that we would seek to know Him—that we would search Him and find him, because God is certainly waiting for us.
I have been searching to know my father for over 40 years. When I was a little girl, I would have these fantasies—sometimes actual dreams that I would wake up from in tears—I would dream that there would be a knock at the front door, and we would open it, and a tall handsome Navy officer in his crisp white uniform would be standing there. And he would say, “I didn’t really die. There was an accident. I had amnesia, and I just remembered who I was, and I’ve been searching for you.” Sometimes in my dreams he catch me up in a big Hollywood embrace; most of the time, he would run to my mother and wrap his arms around her, and I would get to see them together—I would see my mother complete again, and truly happy. It was one of those stories you read about in Reader’s Digest or see on TV.
But that never happened. In fact, nobody talked about him very much. It was too painful. My mom or my grandparents would say brief things, like “your dad was really good at that” or “Bruce was a hard worker.” I’ve heard several stories over the years, like how my dad got his pilot’s license in high school by working at the little airstrip in town after school, how he met my mom because she was dating his best friend, and how he took her flying in a little plane over the Illinois cornfields until she was suitably impressed. But every story ended with the storyteller crying, so the stories only got told a few sentences at a time; I had to treasure them and piece them together and choose my questions carefully. I knew everyone wanted to talk about him, but their memories were just too painful and too precious. It made sharing a difficult thing to do.
Everyone that dies gets immortalized by their families. I’m sure my dad had some faults, but I don’t know any of them. I only know he was an Eagle Scout, a pilot, a Lt. Commander in the United States Navy, a printer, a university professor, a doctoral student. He put himself through college—it took him 6 years; he had to live at home and drive an hour to school every day and go home to work every night—he was the first in his family to attend or graduate from college. He was in ROTC during college; after college, he attended Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island, he took 3 or 4 naval cruises in the Pacific and Mediterranean on submarines and aircraft carriers.
He played the saxophone; he was artistic as well as scientific. He was the navigator on most flights. My grandmother told me once that his aircraft’s navigational equipment went out a few times while flying over the Pacific. His plane would have been lost at sea, except that my dad charted their coarse back to the carrier by using the constellations.
This is the information I know—there’s more—but this is the gist of it. So does that mean I’m close to my father? No, it doesn’t—that’s what causes me sadness and regret. The lack of relational experience makes this relationship more like a dream and less like reality. My dad certainly had a relationship with me; but I’m lacking a relationship with him because I didn’t grow up in his presence—I didn’t experience him. I only know about him. I lack the pleasure and depth of connection that comes only through living life with my father.
The analogy proves true in the spiritual realm. Unless I am growing up in God’s presence—eating with him and laughing with him and being corrected by him—I do not have a genuine relationship with him. I only know information about him. The hole that God has placed within me will still not be filled.
Throughout God’s Word, God systematically and intentionally reveals his character and his will to us through the primary analogy of a Father to his children. He explains his own connection to Jesus by calling him his Son. If the relationship God uses to teach us is that of a father and his son, we can’t help but understand God in those terms—this family comparison makes the unexplainable Creator of the universe an understandable concept.
Since at least 50% of the children in America today do not grow up living with their biological fathers, how can people possibly understand their relationship with their heavenly father? The image of “father” has been inextricably marred.
VALUE THE SACRIFICE
Throughout my growing up years, my brother and I wondered exactly what had happened to my dad. My brother remembers my mom telling him that daddy was in heaven with Jesus, but I don’t remember any explanation. I only remember always knowing that I did not have a dad, and everybody else I knew did. And I knew that if I talked about it too much, my wonderful mother would start to cry. So I lived with not knowing anything about his death except that he had died on a 2-week drill in southern California, somewhere in the mountains.
I had seen pictures of my dad at my grandmother’s house, and when I was older, my uncle made me copies. My mother, however, had no pictures displayed at our house. Some boxes in the attic held his things, and his foot locker contained his hat, uniforms, personal things, and the flag that had been draped over his coffin. It was understood that my brother and I would never look inside the footlocker. It was like the Holy of Holies in our house. If we went inside, we’d probably drop dead and have to be dragged out by a string.
About 5 years ago, my dad’s brother was dying from cancer, so we went to see him in Illinois. As we were leaving, my cousin slipped me a hard-bound book and said that my uncle wanted me to have it. It was a scrapbook containing original pictures, obituaries, newspaper clippings, memorabilia, the actual telegram from the Navy, received by my grandparents. I found where the crash had taken place, and the names of the other crew members and their families. I began to feel like a part of this larger family who grieved separately but simultaneously—the accident had left behind 7 young widows and 29 children. My parents were the youngest of the couples—my mom was 31, and my dad was 33.
I feel the same way about that book that I did about the foot locker in the attic. Every time I open it, I’m treading on hallowed ground.
The Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day were a big deal in my house. My mom flew the American flag from our front porch all year long; we pledged, sang anthems, and prayed for our country. Patriotism was not an option. My mom still cries whenever she talks about America, the military, or liberty. In our house, freedom represented real sacrifice. We were raised to appreciate our freedom and to value the liberties we enjoyed. To us, my dad epitomized the American hero.
I didn’t understand until recently what really happened that stormy night of Feb. 11, 1969, when my dad and 6 other crewmen crashed in their large sub-seeking aircraft, the Lockheed SP-50 Neptune.
By God’s grace, I recently stumbled across a military website while browsing the internet for veteran’s information to benefit my mother. I typed in my dad’s plane information, which I had gotten from my dad’s memory book. Pretty soon, I was reading about the aircraft. Then I was reading about a crash related to this aircraft. Soon I realized that I was reading about my dad’s crash on Feb 11, 1969. One website led me to another and another. People knew about this! People remembered! I was overwhelmed and overjoyed. All of a sudden, I was watching live footage from an ABC affiliate in southern California—watching people walking across a debris- cluttered ridge and talking about their father’s crash. I recognized their last name from the many articles in my memory book. They were actually at my father’s crash site! It was also their father’s crash site. The journalist was seen interviewing a man named Pat Macha, who is an aviation archeologist. He knew more about the crash than I did. He had taken the pilot’s family there in 2008. The area had been completely burned by a forest fire in 2007, making the area once again, traversable. Until the fire of 2007, probably no person had been down into the canyon for 20 years.
I immediately found Pat’s website and sent him an email, telling him who I was and asking if I could come. He responded the next day. He was also overjoyed—he would love to meet me and show me the site. He thanked me for my dad’s sacrifice and wanted to honor his memory on his website.
I felt validation of my longings because someone empathized with my grief. I had always wanted to go to the site, but I didn’t know anyone knew where it was or could lead me to it. When I met Pat this past month, I realized that all the grateful and respectful emails were not for show. He was moved to tears himself when he talked about the crash and the young men who lost their lives. The sacrifice meant something to him, too, and he didn’t know any of us. Pat had done enormous research: he had the official Navy report, he had spoken with the air traffic controller, he had hiked the site himself 6 different times; he remembered the night the crash happened and personally saw the explosion. Through his research, I have finally learned how I lost my father. In a sense, I have found him.
My dad’s crew was a squadron from the Minneapolis/St. Paul (we lived in Wisconsin at the time). They were Naval Reservists on drill in southern California. They had flown to El Toro Air Force Base, near Mission Viejo, to practice touch-and-go’s in the desert terrain of the Santa Ana Mountains. It was night, and it was raining when they took off. After a few minutes in the air, the sky opened up with torrents of rain and gusts of high wind not uncommon for this area; it was the worst weather of the year. Radio transmission was sketchy. The pilot had been given coordinates, but it is still unclear whether the mistake occurred by writing it down incorrectly or whether the air traffic controller gave the wrong coordinates. Nevertheless, the plane was flying about 150 mph, at 3000 feet, headed into Harding Canyon. The Saddleback peaks just ahead rise to 5800 ft. As the plane entered Modeskja Canyon, the crew must have seen a flash of lightning or something to alert them to the close, surrounding mountains, which did not give them enough room to clear the peaks. They sent out a “mayday” and plunged straight into the first ridge. The impact caused the engines to explode, the wings were torn off, and the crew was killed instantly. The plane continued to break apart until it stopped moving. Large pieces of the plane are still imbedded in the sides of these mountains, and the shrapnel and debris cover 3 ridges and valleys. The next day, the Navy flew in to retrieve the bodies and examine the debris. All of the large pieces were hauled off, and the instruments were taken for analysis. The rest was left to be covered over by dense vegetation.
My mother heard about a naval air crash of 7 men on the radio the following morning. Shortly after, an officer appeared at our front door to give her the news in person. Another officer went to my grandparents’ house.
I can’t begin to know my dad without appreciating his decision to serve as a pilot in the US Navy. I can’t know him with out my values being transformed by the sacrifice he made. Yes, his death was an accident. That was not an intentional sacrifice—but for him, however briefly it occurred, there was a moment of horror and realization that he would be forever separated from his family—that his life was ending. Understanding and appreciating my dad’s sacrifice is not equivalent to having a relationship with him, not in the least—but it is essential to having a relationship with him and with his memory.
My relationship with my heavenly Father is much the same. I can know all about God—I can even know all about his ultimate sacrifice—but that doesn’t mean I’ll have an intimate relationship with him. I still have a choice to make.
BUILD A MEMORIAL
In May, 2012, we met Pat Macha and his team, called “Project Remembrance”—they are a task force that researches and documents lost aircraft in southern CA. More than 300 planes, military and civilian, have wrecked in the deserts and mountains of this area. Pat’s team consists mainly of himself (the researcher), a pilot, a forest ranger, and a security specialist. Their purpose is to recover aircraft and make connections with the families of the pilots and passengers. In many cases, the individuals in the planes have died, and family members want to revisit the sites. In some cases, the aircraft have not been identified, so Pat’s team continues to search. The areas are remote, sometimes dangerous, and often off-limits to civilians. Our hike took place on government property, so Pat secured admittance from the National Forest Service, and ranger accompanied us. Our group also contained a local journalist and photographer. While this was a bit uncomfortable, they were gracious and non-intrusive. Since I only found out where my dad’s plane was because another family had agreed to be interviewed and accompanied on their quest, I was willing to do the same.
Our trip consisted of an early-morning drive to the top of a ridge overlooking the canyon. The mountains were still enveloped in fog. We got our gear and climbed down to the first ridge, which was the impact zone. It is still covered with plane parts. Pat set up flags and explained the impact. From our vantage point, you could see the Air Force base, only 4 miles as a crow flies. Then we prepared for our descent into the deep canyon, where most of the debris had collected over time. The vegetation is dense and unforgiving. Soon it will be tall and thick enough to prevent hiking at all. We picked our way through the wreckage. The men of Project Remembrance were able to point out recognizable pieces from the aircraft. We looked for something to take back in my suitcase.
I couldn’t leave any memorial in the ground. I had to attach it to the plane. On a plane seat, the last family had attached a small plastic container with a lid. Inside, they stored some pictures and letters. I had prepared a page about my dad to leave there, so I folded it up and put it inside with theirs. I said a prayer and made a few short comments about my dad. Really, for a talkative person, I was truly at a loss for words. The experience was overwhelming and completely wonderful. I could not—and still cannot—describe how it actually felt.
I grew up going to memorials and monuments, honoring Presidents and famous people. It felt a little like that—but it felt holy, too. I felt joined to my father in a way I had never felt before.
That’s the purpose of a memorial—to connect the living with a significant memory or event in the past–to stop and make a point to remember and appreciate someone else’s sacrifice and achievements.
All throughout the Old Testament, God tells his people to stop and make a memorial. Marking the spot would solidify the relationship they had with their heavenly Father, a father they typically didn’t understand to well. The memorial also reminded them about God’s character, because what He did for them at that place revealed something significant about his love for them. The Israelites made a memorial after they crossed the Red Sea and God destroyed the Egyptian army behind them. They made a memorial when He provided water from the rock when they were dying of thirst in the desert. At each memorial, they praised and worshipped Him for who He was.
God also appeared to individuals at momentous occasions—to Abraham multiple times, including his Mt. Sinai visit with Isaac; to Moses when he received the 10 Commandments; to Hagar, when she wandered in the desert with her son, about to die; to Joshua before the battle of Jericho; to Gideon when God needed a man to lead the Israelites against their enemy. The list goes on. In each place, God called himself by a new name—a name that revealed his character, much like Jesus called himself different names, like “son of Man” and “friend of sinners.” Each name God used for Himself revealed another facet of his character, another way to know him intimately and connect with him personally. Jehovah Rapha is the God who Heals. Jehovah Nissi=the God who is my Banner, El Roi=the God who cares, Jehovah Shalom=the God of Peace, El Shaddai=God Almighty. Each of these show us something different about God.
Several years ago, when we were church planting, our ladies’ Bible study decided to do a study about the association that our relationships with our earthly father had on our relationship with our heavenly father. I did not want to go because I figured the study wouldn’t apply to me, and I didn’t want to sit and listen to people talk about their fathers, good or bad. But when you’re church planting, you go to everything or there’s nobody there, so I went. That marked the beginning of another phase of growth and healing for me. I discovered that I had the perspective that God was often absent or uninvolved in my life—like he was floating in the clouds somewhere watching, but not personally attached to me. Some time later, I began praying and asking God to help me pray in the Spirit—to give me words I didn’t know or understand. My first and only word was “Shammah.” I used it for awhile and decided it meant something. Since it sounded Hebrew to me, I looked it up in my Bible. Lo and behold, it appeared in a long list of the names of God: Jehovah Shammah–the God who is Present.
He was not dead; he was not absent. He was with me all the time.
That was a memorial moment for me. I had searched for God, and He was there. He had always been there.
Your memorial moment will happen when you search for your Father in Heaven. He has already initiated his search; he already sacrificed for it. Now it’s up to you to come meet him. He will reveal Himself to you in the way that you need most to be understood.