The Welcome Home Band

It is 1971. I am nearly four years old. My mother has driven my brother and me to an airplane hangar in Alameda, California, where my father is scheduled to fly his Navy jet in from somewhere or another.


Dad has been gone for six months, a big chunk of my young life. I remember what he looks like, but that’s about it. The other thing I know is that when he’s away, Mom lets my brother Dave and me do stuff we can’t do when he’s home, like stay up past nine and drink Pepsi with our Sunday-night popcorn as we watch “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” I’m not sure I want Dad to come back, but Mom seems excited.

As other families mill about in the hangar, which is strewn with balloons and hand-lettered banners, Mom leans down and says, “Do you want to watch your dad’s plane land? Or do you want to be in the welcome home band? Some of the other kids are playing in a band to welcome the dads home.”


I look to the side and see a tight little knot of children, horns and kazoos and drums in hand, peering around as they wait for adult instruction. Most of the boys have crew cuts; the girls are wearing dresses. Everyone has been scrubbed, brushed, trimmed and dressed as if for church. This is a big event for some reason, though I can’t quite conceive of why. It’s stuffy in the hangar, and I’m impatient for everything to just get over with. How long are we gonna have to wait for the planes to land? Are we supposed to just stand around? Why didn’t anyone bring any chairs?

“I can’t play anything,” I finally whine in response to Mom’s question. “What would I play?”

“It looks like they have shakers,” my mother says. “Do you want to play a shaker?” She gestures to a row of plastic cups half-filled with rice and sealed with tin foil, prepared in advance for any little ones who might want to join the band.

“I don’t know!” I say, my voice spiking in volume and pitch. I am rapidly becoming out of sorts. Who wants to play a rice-cup shaker? Why aren’t there any trombones around? Why didn’t anyone bring an extra drum? I am paralyzed by indecision. How am I supposed to know whether I should watch Dad land or play in this stupid band? Why won’t Mom just tell me what to do?


“Well,” she says, “if you play in the band, you might get your picture in the paper. Look, there’s a photographer right there.”

My eyes follow my mother’s pointed finger to a young man with a camera, down on one knee near the budding musicians. In my memory, he is wearing a fedora with a press pass sticking out of the brim, and carrying a boxy camera with a shiny, dish-sized flash. I know that can’t be right, but I saw what I saw: a young newspaper photographer who had the power to make me famous.

“Okay,” I say to my mother. “Get me a shaker.”

“Dave,” my mother says, turning to my brother, “Lisa wants to be in the band. What do you want to do?”

Piously, my six-year-old brother replies, “I want to watch Dad land. I’ll stay with you.”


Idiot. I wander over to the little band, pick up a rice shaker, pose at the far left of the first row, nearest the photographer, and prepare to shake. I will be the best shaker in the history of little children awaiting their fathers’ jet landings. I will be so good, so brave-looking, and so photogenic, that the photographer will zoom right in on me. I assume an expression of angelic concern and anticipation and steal quick glances at the photographer. Is he looking at me? Does he think I’m cute? Does he think I’m worthy of a photo?

My father’s plane lands that day, but I have no memory of it. My mom and brother wave and cheer, and I shake my rice cup with abandon. After hugs and welcomes, Dad and his duffel bag come home with us, and Mom puts our Pepsi back into his special little refrigerator downstairs, with his beer. Later that week, a photo of the welcome home band appears in the community newspaper, with me in the bottom corner caught in mid-shake. Mom presses it between two sheets of contact paper and saves it in a special envelope with my birth certificate.

Over the next month, we all have to adjust to having Dad back, and he has to get used to being with his wife and kids rather than being on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean with his buddies. It’s not a particularly smooth transition, as Dad becomes irritated by the things typical four- and six-year-olds do, such as leaving toys around to be stepped on, spilling Kool-Aid on the carpet, crying in public places. And after months of Mom’s relatively nonexistent disciplinary tactics, Dave and I must get used to having a sterner presence in the house. I can remember complaining more than once that I liked it better when he was away.


Strangely, I never thought to ask where my father had been all those months. All I knew was that he’d gone away; once he was out of the house and our lives, it didn’t occur to me that he actually still existed somewhere else. It was as if all his particles simply dissolved and the entity that was my Dad just disappeared for a while. Then they suddenly reassembled, and he was back.

Fifteen years later, while studying the Vietnam War in college, I found myself wondering: How come I don’t know anyone who fought there? Why were none of my uncles drafted? And why in God’s name, if my father was in the Navy, didn’t he get sent there?



I called home and the truth was revealed: As it turned out, my father had been sent to Vietnam not one time, but three. Yet his only long absence that I remember from my childhood is that one where I played in the welcome home band and got my picture in the paper upon his return. Such are the building blocks of memory.

Anyway, that’s my earliest one. I could tell you another time about why my father never talked about having been in Vietnam, if I remember to do it. But as we’ve seen already, memory is a fallible thing.


8 responses to “The Welcome Home Band”

  1. the post itself is so engaging and pertinent, but that final picture! i never would have recognized you — not with your sultan disguises.

    my own first media memory — and one of my earliest memories — is watching soldiers get off planes and kiss the ground. i also remember shots of coffins coming off planes. we had a huge black and white TV set into a copper-colored cube.

    as for not speaking about the war, i remember a friend’s dad coming to school to talk about it one year, but he simply politely declined to answer any real questions, saying he didn’t like to talk about it. at the time i thought it was weird — why ask him to come speak, then? — but his refusal to say what he saw there probably made a bigger impression than details of combat would have.

  2. lane says:

    please blondie, don’t leave us hanging on the telephone.

    great story


  3. PB says:

    What is always tricky about childhood memory is that we are currently adults, all wrapped up in what we know to be right, recreating our former protaganists selves as children when we were acting like . . . well . . . children. We struggle with both a sense of pride and protection for our completely self-centered kid-world and yet discomfort and sometimes even judgment at how we could have been so oblivious to what was going on around us. What I so enjoy about your memory essays is that you are able to utterly capture the voice and immediacy of you as a girl and yet layer in the grown-up discoveries with a seamless whoosh of forward motion. We hear both your voices – past and present – and both feel true and wise to their time. What an obvious and important juxtaposition to the chain email last week – real human response trumps the faux constructions every time. thank you xox!

  4. Scotty says:

    One of my favorite games to play as a child was sitting on my father’s foot with my arms wrapped around his leg so he could carry me from room to room. The feeling of comfort in his comparative strength was mesmerizing. The game took on a new meaning as my sister and I held onto his legs trying to prevent him from going off to ‘fight’ in the ‘battle of Newark’ otherwise known as the Newark race riots.

    As with your father’s role in Vietnam, I didn’t understand what the Newark riots were all about until I was much older. I did, however, notice that my dad always lost his good natured self whenever we drove past the burned-out public housing units that still sit on the edge of the city.

    The picture of you standing in front of the giant artillery shell is fascinating and disturbing to me. It makes me imagine how many children lost life and limb to similar bombs in Vietnam. It really punctuates the difference between our childhood experiences – all safe and snug at home – compared to those poor souls who do the fighting and dying for ‘bigger’ causes.

    Lovely post.

  5. I love the juxtoposition of the childhood cynic (“Idiot.”) and the smiling, innocent, happy-go-lucky home photos. My favorite, however, is the placement of the adorable picture of your brother right after he decides he doesn’t want the opportunity of getting his picture taken. It suggests that maybe he got his picture taken by the photographer even when he wasn’t looking for it. It adds a moment of suspense and further irony.

  6. Marleyfan says:

    Sometimes it’s good when children don’t have to know the details.

  7. LP says:

    BW – So true that the refusal to speak speaks volumes in itself. I get the impression that, unlike many of the Gulf war vets of the early 90s, many of today’s Iraq war vets are unable to speak about their experiences when they come home. Perhaps it’s as much a function of not wanting to bring the reality of what they saw there home with them as anything else.

    PB: Mwah!

    Scotty: I love the image of you as a child clinging to your dad’s leg. And yes, that giant artillery shell is disturbing. I have lots of childhood photos like that — posing with big guns, cannons, on airplane tarmacs. Military equipment seemed like such a normal part of childhood to me.

  8. Tim says:

    My memories of the Vietnam War era all have to do with watching the CBS Evening News: Dan Rather reporting from foxholes, wounded soldiers being rushed along jungle trails on stretchers, and Marines firing into thickets of trees and vines. As a typical 5- or 6-year-old male, I was fascinated by playing with “army men” and fantasizing about war. Watching violence on TV was a part of that, and I would always ask my father to call me when the war news was on.

    Looking back I think how strange it was that my anti-war, pacifist parents allowed me to have toy soldiers and guns. Perhaps they could tell that it was just a phase, or maybe they decided to pick their battles with me.

    Thanks for sharing your memories, LP! Always so crystal clear, your recollections. I don’t know how you do it.