Military families are tiny units of the bigger fighting machine. Offspring fill various roles in a more or less prescribed manner, not too different than their contemporaries in civilian life. The Great Santini, notwithstanding.
As a parent climbs in the ranks, new assignments translate into relocation. The family uproots and moves. New base, new school, new friends, and new routines. All disquieting and yet, expected.
Oliver’s father was just back from a year overseas and they were awaiting orders. When the Captain announced the family would be assigned in Erie, Pennsylvania, the oldest son thought a couple teen years in the world of American Bandstand might be fun. The other kids were too young to appreciate moving that close to the Mecca.
Oliver liked transfers and leaving unfinished responsibilities behind. Long lived homework projects fell victim, as did his recollection of gaffs and enemies. Christmas would be in a motel room, again. No big deal and better than going to a relative’s for all the drama. Except for the newest addition to the family, everyone had done at least one motel Christmas or Thanksgiving.
The guy who convinced the government camels made sense in the U.S. was the same that declared Route 66 America’s highway. He got that one right, anyway. San Diego to Chicago, two lanes across America. Oliver and a Pekinese named Quilene occupied the rearmost seat in the station wagon and together read Mark Twain. Most towns passed unnoticed while modest hotels with interconnecting doors waited.
The ferocity of the Albuquerque snowstorm surprised everyone. The frozen breeze around the doors and windows left the rooms like an icebox. By noon, the falling snow left the empty streets and parking lot a flaky, car covered utopia, and the motel room a warzone. No one had clothes for an excursion in this kind of weather, but cabin fever prevailed. Life’s lessons about cold and wet were parental meat and potatoes, so after a couple of hours, huddling hypothermic kids appreciated the relative warmth indoors. Dinner was the same bologna and cheese sandwiches from lunch and breakfast, because the stores remained closed.
By the next afternoon the first snow plow made it across the Sandia Mountains. Preparations were ordered for pending embarkation. Luggage was packed and Oliver was assigned the dog. Cars waited in several motel parking lots until the snow plow passed and then fell into line. The family wagon was one of many as the sun set behind them in an uncertain west.
The heater did not reach the last seat. As Oliver snuggled for warmth, he realized the dog wasn’t by his side. He looked around, careful to move bags and games, and trying not to raise the alarm. His Dad’s eyes in the rear view mirror were not fooled.
“Where’s the dog?” The car went quiet and the question stripped away any thought of amelioration.
“I must have left her.”
“Must have or did?”
Silence. “Were you assigned the dog?”
The city was behind them as the plow pushed a one way trip on an uphill, single lane mountain road. A U-turn was not possible. Slowing was not possible. The cars behind depended upon the car in front. The quiet screamed in Oliver’s ears. The middle seat sniffled.
His mom said, “I checked both rooms, Frank, like always. The dog was not inside.”
His dad said nothing.
She looked at Oliver’s father. “What are we going to do?”
He sighed and shook his head. “What we have to do.”
No one else spoke. The air was running low in the back of the station wagon. Oliver walked her before they loaded to go, but now, the information didn’t matter.
As they started up a grade, the dark sky opened with snow. Banks grew higher on either side of the tight lane. The flakes were huge, drifting behemoths. Nine years ago, his father entrusted the puppy to Oliver when North Korea invaded the South. That time, he left for two years. The son was as tall as his dad now and sometimes fancied himself an equal, and yet now fought back the tears that threatened.
When the snowplow pulled off into the Howard Johnson parking lot, another picked up the lead. Oliver’s father pulled off and stopped in front of the restaurant’s frosted glass. The conga line kept moving east toward the summit. He kept the motor running as the car door slammed in the wind. Pant cuffs whipped with drifts beating against his legs. Oliver prayed.
When his Dad was back in the front seat, and finished rubbing bare hands together, he looked up into the rear view mirror and held Oliver’s eyes. “The motel doesn’t have the dog.”
A whimper rose from the middle seats.
A strong hand was held up and the noise ceased. “They looked outside, too and can’t find her. It’s snowing again in Albuquerque. We’ve lost two days already. Christmas Eve is tomorrow, and I’ll report on Monday. What do you expect me to do?”
Oliver couldn’t answer. His mouth did not make spit and no words formed. He knew these were the hard decisions military men made, like his Dad.
“All right then.” His shifted the car into reverse and stopped at the open lane. He blinked the headlights and a snow plow’s yellow rotators began to turn. The family wagon pulled behind as both made the turn onto the highway. Another car joined as sheets of snowflakes careened through the headlights, over the windshield, and catapulted off the back glass. The trio moved down the mountain.
At the city’s limits, the trailing car turned leaving the family to follow alone. Midnight came and left as they inched through deserted streets.
When the family reached the motel, all lights were dark except the No Vacancy sign. Oliver’s Dad flashed his lights and rolled the window down to wave. A gloved hand emerged from cab ahead and waved back. The family wagon reversed in the empty street.
“Just Oliver,” his father said. “Go.”
The son jumped out of the tailgate and waded through the hip deep snow looking for an ankle high dog. He neglected his coat and started to shiver. He yelled and yelled, walking the parking lot back and forth. He looked at the car idling on the white street. The headlights glinted with falling snow flakes. Then, Oliver stopped. Quilene sat and wagged a tail in front of number four, their room for the last two days. Snow froze around her small muzzle.
They drove through the remainder of night and ate the last of the bologna. The dog was passed from kid to kid, and even made the front seat for a sliver of meat. Oliver tried to imagine life without Quilene, but the black thought made him shutter. In a year or so, that mystery would be revealed, but on that most long night before Christmas eve, the universe was once again whole. Much rested with the little dog and the decisions of a military family.