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Ritual Rekindles Memories of Life on Base

The echoing roar stopped us in our tracks.

Like everyone else in the parking lot of Fairchild Air Force Base Commissary, we craned our necks and watched the Thunderbirds practicing for SkyFest. It was the Friday before the air show and we were thrilled to get a sneak peek at the six F-16C Fighting Falcons soaring through the blue skies and darting in and out of fluffy white clouds.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Fairchild, beginning at birth. My dad served 24 years in the Air Force. My oldest brother and I were born at the base hospital. My second brother was born at a base in Montana and my sister in the Philippines.

After several moves, we returned to Washington when I was 5, and we always did our grocery shopping at Fairchild. Even after Dad retired and we lived in Ritzville and then Moses Lake, we drove to the base to stock our pantry.

I remember the old commissary that seemed more like a dimly-lit warehouse than a grocery store. Mom bought “GI bread” in its plain wrapper and Circus Peanut Butter that came in tall plastic jars.

I lived in terror that my friends would discover my sandwiches weren’t made from Jif and Wonder Bread. Still, that would’ve been better than them seeing the bologna in our refrigerator that came in a huge hunk. My dad hacked off crooked slices and when I’d decline a sandwich, he’d fry it up in a pan for breakfast.

Oh, to have a thinly sliced Oscar Meyer, Bologna, with pre-sliced American cheese sandwich in my Barbie lunchbox!

We didn’t just grocery shop at Fairchild. There were doctor visits, dental checkups and trailer rentals.

Yep, Fairchild has an Outdoor Recreation Center where active duty and retired military personnel can rent tents, trailers and everything you need for a family camping trip.

That is everything except a dad who can put up a tent and back a trailer into a campsite. Dad was not an outdoorsy kind of guy, so while mom “helped” (mainly by laughing hysterically) my siblings and I usually just pretended we were with another family.

Of course, I married a military man. Derek served 23 years in the Washington National Guard which turned out to be providential. Without our monthly trips to the commissary, our budget would have buckled under the strain of feeding four growing boys.

Nowadays, with just one kid at home, our trips to Fairchild are far less frequent, but our recent visit complete with thundering jets overhead was something special. We finished our shopping at 5 p.m. If you’re familiar with military life you know what that means.

As we were loading our groceries into the car “Retreat” began to play through loudspeakers across the base. The tune signals the end of the official duty day and is followed by the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the lowering of the flag.

The piping bugle call echoed and everyone, whether in uniform or not, stopped what they were doing and faced the nearest flag. All vehicles stopped. Those in uniform stood at parade rest, and the rest of us put our hands over our hearts.

It’s a beautiful thing to see a bustling military base come to a standstill. To watch older retired folks, young civilian grocery baggers, and men and women in uniform, united for a few moments of respect and reflection.

May is military appreciation month and we’re heading into Memorial Day weekend. Today, I’ve got “Retreat” set to play on my phone. At 5 p.m. I plan to stand and let my workday worries go. I’ll be thinking about the men and women in uniform across the world who are doing the same thing.

And I don’t have to be on a military base to feel profoundly thankful for their service.

Sam Hval places a pinwheel on his grandfather’s grave at Washington State Veteran’s Cemetery.