Hanging Up the Eagle

christmasIt was the Christmas my dad turned into a full bird. My mother and I were in a department store at the Garden State Plaza surrounded by bows, glitter, and faux firs decorated from tip to trunk with lights and glass-blown ornaments. I was eleven, a sixth grader with snaggly teeth, bangs and the patience of a newborn squirrel. But I knew my mission. "Something gaudy," my mother instructed. "It's got to be huge."

"I think we're in the right place," I replied, looking over the sea of drums, meaningless balls, gingerbread men, and fat Santas. I gave my bangs a puff of air with a protruding lower lip. "Does dad know you're doing this?"

"Of course not," she snapped. Turning another carousel of ornaments, my mother laughed. "He's going to hate it."

A Matter of Rank

In the Army, a full-bird grows within a cocoon of service and emerges with two-dimensional eagles pinned on its epaulets. A full-bird is a Colonel—an officer selected to climb to the ranks of the U.S. Army. When the good news came that previous summer, my mother popped a champagne bottle and invited the family to the promotion ceremony that overlooked the Hudson River. All that was done and over, and now it was Christmas and my mother was determined.

"This bird is putting you through college," my mother shouted from across the store. I shrank in embarrassment and rushed to her side.

"No one makes eagle ornaments, mom," I whispered. Why were we looking for an eagle ornament when my father wore two on his shoulders every day? There was no sign of an eagle. Not even a dove.

I didn't understand the importance of that ornament. I didn't understand that removing LTC from the doorstep and replacing it with COL was a feat that required an entire committee to select my father's name and pass over someone else's. I didn't know that if his name hadn't been chosen, it would have meant the end of his 23-year Army career. It would have meant leaving West Point, the cocoon of my own making. I couldn't contemplate that even though my father's career had been extended, there was still an expiration date, and that it was fast approaching.

I didn't understand that when he took the uniform off, the ornament and the memories and the man would be all we had left.

And then I saw it.

"Mom," I shouted across the store. "I found it!"

eagle ornament