The Dress (A Memoir)

© Marie-Lynn Hammond 2000

When I wrote the weekly air-force-childhood stories for the radio show, my producer asked me to keep most of the stories on the lighter side because it was a summer afternoon show, and the tone was fairly breezy. But there was more to tell than the lighter side, so a few years later I began this longer piece; I wrote and rewrote it off and on. It’s been shortlisted twice in the CBC Radio literary competition and is published here for the first time.

During the Korean war my air-force pilot father brought back from Japan a length of silk brocade the colour of peacock feathers. My mother had the fabric made into a glamorous, classic column of a dress, floor-length and strapless. The dress mesmerized me, especially the material itself. The blue-green silk was shot through with delicate gold and scarlet threads that sketched miniature Oriental scenes: pagodas on rolling hills, coolies pulling rickshaws, villagers in wide-brimmed hats. What these scenes did not show, of course, were planes flown by men like my father dropping bombs on those peaceable landscapes, or armed battalions advancing in the hills beyond the pagodas.

This irony, though, didn’t strike me until much later, when North American soldiers were once again dropping bombs in a land of rickshaws and rice paddies. As a child I made a game of getting lost in those fabric scenes. At some point I realized that they formed a repetitive pattern and felt disappointed—how much more interesting it would be, I thought, to have a dress like a painting, where every detail was different.

But the images still fascinated, and now the game consisted of trying to figure out just where the clever pattern began and ended, where it started to repeat itself. Pattern and repetition: that was our life in the air force in the ’50s and ’60s, when everyone knew who the enemy was and no expense was spared to keep the military in a permanent state of arousal. Troops had to be kept mobile. The fact they now trailed wives and children was a nuisance but basically irrelevant; we were transferred sixteen times in eighteen years. As with my mother’s dress, the scenes of our lives appeared to vary, but in fact we were caught in a kind of repeating loop. What seemed like destinations turned out to be simply pauses in our main mode of existence: moving. So we lived like ghosts, avoiding contact with our surroundings. Scuff marks, fingerprints, nail holes—all those harmless manifestations of family life—became for us major transgressions in light of the white-glove inspections that took place whenever we vacated the PMQs, or Private Married Quarters. Even when we lived off base, we floated carefully. Either our homes were rented, or if my parents had bought, we had to think of the resale value.

And we travelled light. At each move, my mother jettisoned all unnecessary ballast—old books, cracked china, worn-out toys. Other items just disappeared. “It got lost in the move” became our family refrain.

Throughout all the moving we clung to a few portable rituals, which wove their way from place to place. Every New Year’s Eve, my mother would allow my younger sisters and me to help with her toilette before the big dance at the officers’ mess. After we’d done up her necklace and spritzed her with Chanel No. 5, she’d carefully remove the teal silk dress from its garment bag.

It never occurred to me to be amazed that this clinging dress continued to fit her through two pregnancies, a dozen years, and six more postings. As long as my mother could slip into that gown, I could believe that nothing else was changing, that we were still safe.

When I was eight my father was assigned to work with British Air Ministry, and we moved to Purley, a genteel London suburb. After our previous two dreary postings, this transfer seemed like a fabulous fantasy. In 1956, Canadian dollars in England afforded us unheard-of luxuries. We rented an oak-panelled, six-bedroom house, with a solarium and a flagstone terrace. My sisters and I attended a swank private school where, on summer afternoons, we sat in the rose garden and sewed French seams. My parents travelled frequently in Europe and I spent one magical summer in Bordeaux. My father took us to the pantomime every Christmas and even bought us a pony. I lived in paradise, and if it rained I never felt it.

. . .

My father had been a Pathfinder in World War II, which meant he and his navigator flew alone without a fighter escort. They dropped flares to illuminate targets for the bombers that followed them; often they too would drop bombs. Some nights he’d be “coned” by the searchlights, a sitting duck for German anti-aircraft guns. Other nights, he said, he flew through flak so thick you swore you could taxi across it. By war’s end, he had two Distinguished Flying Crosses and seventy-five sorties in his logbook, while friends of his had been killed on their first outing.

Like many men returning from war, my father came home thinking he craved the peace of ordinary existence. In fact, he was addicted to the adrenaline high of battle. So he stayed in the air force and continued to fly, not just because flying was his one real passion, but because it was a hell of a lot more exciting than staying home with his growing family of girls.

(“If only one of you had been a boy,” my mother would mutter regretfully. She loved us, of course, but a macho pilot needs sons, and my sisters and I couldn’t help feeling we had failed both of them from the moment of conception.)

My father also continued drinking. In wartime, alcohol had desensitized him to the horror around him. After the war, it neutralized his nightmares and his survivor’s guilt. But it also released in him a twisted, violent self.

. . . .

 

In England, my little Eden began to fade with the parties my parents often threw. My father’s old air force buddies would turn up with liquor and glamorous but dubious women on their arms. My sisters and I would wake to the roar of raucous voices, followed inevitably by Ruth Wallis records played too loud. “He’s got the cutest little dinghy in the Navy,” the voices sang raggedly along, erupting into hoots of laughter.

The laughter made me uneasy. What could be so funny about a boat? I’d creep down the stairs and find my mother. “I can’t sleep,” I’d protest. “It’s too noisy.”

Looking oddly out of focus, her voice slurred, she would promise to quiet down the guests. The noise would abate for a few minutes, then rise again.

That noise however, was not as frightening as the sounds I heard later, when everyone else had left. Then it was my parents’ voices, rising and falling in anger, and other, almost inhuman sounds—cries, whimpers, groans—that terrified me. I would force myself to escape back into sleep. The next morning, my parents would seem mysteriously irritable or unwell. Still, I didn’t connect their behaviour to the constantly clinking glasses that had now become the soundtrack to our lives.

We left England the summer of ’59—were agonizingly wrenched, really, from our longest stay anywhere—and were posted to Uplands Station, Ottawa, where my sisters and I struggled to lose our posh British accents and become Canadian again. I’d skipped two grades; I was eleven years old in grade 8. My female classmates, all boy-crazy teenagers, wore lipstick, brassieres, and fashionable saddle shoes. I was a hopeless, bra-less, teased and bullied misfit who wore Mary Janes and still played with dolls.

After only one year in Ottawa, we arrived, in August 1960, at C.F.B. Bagotville, two hundred kilometres north of Quebec City, where my father was to assume command of a fighter squadron. As a result of its “isolated” classification, Bagotville had been given extra recreational facilities: a bowling alley, a huge swimming pool, and a theatre featuring cheap movies that changed frequently and indiscriminately. I think I saw them all, from South Pacific to Village of the Damned. Still, all the movies in the world couldn’t stop the wilderness from pressing in on us. Two-metre snow drifts piled up against the house, and night after night the northern lights danced their beautiful, alien dance. At the edge our backyard lay a sidewalk, then sudden, impenetrable forest: dense bush and rock and scrubby evergreens. As if to step off the lawn would be to step off the edge of the world.

The military countered the potential chaos of nature in its usual fashion. Life at CFB Bagotville was as rigid and hierarchical as a feudal fiefdom. Officers lived in big houses on the same block and drank in the same mess, while lesser ranks were housed in smaller houses on other blocks and drank in their own messes. When my father got drunk that year, other officers brought him home, and sergeants, like my best friend Gloria’s dad, were spared the sight of a wing commander staggering out into the night, massacring verses of the “North Atlantic Squadron.”

I, however, was not spared. I had just turned twelve and had hit puberty—howling in protest—and I was often awake now when my father stumbled home. At last I understood it was alcohol that transformed him.

One night, hearing those eerie sounds again, I found myself at the end of the darkened upstairs hallway. Below me, at the foot of the stairs in a crumpled heap lay my mother. I cried out to her. Go back to bed, she moaned, everything’s all right. And I believed her, because not to would have been like stepping off the edge of the world.

For many years I thought that memory was a dream. Now I know that it was not.

. . . .

 

After a year in Bagotville, my father was made head of Intelligence for Northern NORAD, and we moved south to Montreal. Two years later the NORAD defence installation at Trout Lake, near North Bay, was ready, and we were transferred again.

That posting was our descent into hell—literally, for my father—since Intelligence headquarters were now at the end of a mile-long tunnel in an airless cavern five hundred feet below ground. His work was classified, so he couldn’t relieve the tension by talking about it. All I knew was that his job had something to do with setting off the alert systems for a nuclear war. Sometimes at home the phone would ring late at night for my father. He would utter a password and then head off to fight a mock war. If he’d been drinking, my mother would hastily make him strong coffee in a desperate attempt to sober him up. All those missiles and radar networks and fake battles were supposed to make us feel safe. But at night I’d listen to my father crashing through the house and I didn’t feel safe at all.

In North Bay his drinking escalated. My mother also began to drink more. Where my father, drunk, became terrifying and dangerous, my mother turned maudlin and sad. North Bay was small-town bleak, the northern winters seemed eternal; I was fifteen and had no friends.

Our second North Bay Christmas came and went in what had become another pattern for us. I prayed for just one—Dear God, make it this year please—sober Christmas. God had other plans, as usual, and I began to doubt his existence.

On New Year’s Eve, my father was already high when my mother sat down at her dressing table, and I was beginning to dimly sense the torment she would suffer on nights like these. As I combed out her hair and helped her with her makeup, I knew I couldn’t protect her. Yet I still had a childish desire for her to be as beautiful as possible, as if our lives were some fairy tale and beauty might actually save her. The sea-coloured dress lay waiting on the bed. My mother tugged at her girdle and then stepped into the gown. For the first time ever, though, she had to struggle to draw it over her hips. I stood behind her and began to pull up the long zipper. Halfway up, the zipper caught. I tugged in vain. My father, glass in hand, resplendent in his mess kit with medals glittering, loomed menacingly behind us.

“What’s the matter?” my mother asked anxiously. I didn’t know how to tell her that it was 1964, not 1952, she was no longer thirty years old, the Korean War was long over, and although the dress had remained constant through shifts of fashion, her body had not. Nervous of my father’s drunken mutterings, she reached behind, wrenched the zipper from me, and pulled. We heard the quick, rough sound of something tearing, and I stared in horror at the gaping split that exposed the shiny white girdle beneath.

“Jesus effing Christ!” my father thundered. My mother began to cry. Never one to spend money on herself, she had no other long gown. We began to flail about desperately in her closet. I pulled out a semi-formal she’d never worn before, something simple and silvery she’d bought on sale.

“An officer’s wife can’t wear a short dress,” she sobbed. “It’s just not done!”

“Mum, you’ve got no choice. Unless,” I implored, “you don’t go.”

“I have to go,” she said quietly, and I didn’t know how to contradict her. I helped her put on the knee-length dress and this time I drew the zipper all the way up.

“But the straps are too long!” She began to cry again. I felt as though I were trapped in some adult version of Alice in Wonderland. Just when I thought I’d regained control of things, a new, nightmarish twist sent me spinning.

I ran to get a needle and thread. My mother wiped her tears and stood meekly, like a child, while I shortened the straps. With a shock I realized I was already three inches taller than she was. Finally she was ready and I followed her out to the hallway where my father now paced, mumbling bizarre incoherencies. I watched them leave, afraid for her, while the dress the colour of peacock feathers lay abandoned on the floor of their room.

The next day my mother described to me, for the first time, what she’d had to endure on such nights, not just at the mess, but after. On the way home my father had stopped the car on a deserted stretch of road and pushed her out, then drove off. Shivering in her thin evening wrap, she stumbled over snow banks and imagined herself freezing to death. Minutes later my father roared back and pulled up beside her. She got in the car. In the twenty-below cold, what choice did she have? Then he did it again. And again.

Three years later, my father lost his licence for impaired driving, and by then his drinking was seriously interfering with his job. His superiors, wanting to avoid embarrassing a war hero with disciplinary action, suggested early retirement, their proposal a thinly veiled order. He was only forty-eight.

Flying, though, was his life’s blood, so my father decided to join an old war buddy in a bush-flying venture on the west coast. My parents moved to Victoria, while I stayed out east. Two years later my mother finally left him, after a night when he’d followed her around the house carrying a 22-gauge shot gun. When I went out west that year, I found no family to return to, a split that couldn’t be mended.

My father never did fly again. When he applied for his commercial pilot’s licence, he didn’t pass the medical. Something about his heart, they said, some weakness or damage. But then, we knew that already—we’d lived with that damage for years.