The Missing Man Formation

Of the best-laid plans of mice and men …

I’m writing this from Colorado Springs on a Saturday night, nestled on the couch as a quiet gas-powered fire continues to make the family room quite cozy. I glance toward an empty kitchen and beyond that lies a quirky game room where all is still. All four bedrooms on the condo’s second floor are empty and the laundry remains unused.

That’s not at all how the weekend was supposed to play out.

When you experience how difficult it is to make the logistics work, you really come to appreciate the times when they actually do.

Since August, I had been scheming with both kids to get together on this very weekend, marking the last home basketball game for Air Force’s men’s basketball team, the final chance for my son to see his sister perform as a cheerleader. We had all connected earlier in the summer but one military calendar is difficult enough to manage, so with both kids beholden to their particular branch of the military, we knew the next meeting would take some significant planning.

So as my submariner prepared for his first deployment sometime around September (yes, OPSEC, even in hindsight), we penciled in the first weekend in March as the time for us to connect in Colorado. He couldn’t confirm that he’d be back on dry land at that point (yes, OPSEC), but he said he the odds were in our favor. 

He went underwater and my daughter and I continued planning. I scouted out what I thought would be a perfect house, a nice, big king bed in the master bedroom for her (I know, I know, she’s 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds but it brings me great joy knowing my Little Dragon can sprawl out in comfort when she’s with me) with the surprise bonus for her of a jacuzzi in the master bathroom (she LOVES hot tubs), and spacious bedrooms with queen beds for my son and me. There was even a bonus room with a double bed should her boyfriend decide to join us. The clincher was a nifty game room of sorts at the front of the house and I imagined us settling in Saturday night for some real fun.

The months passed and my son finally surfaced, literally, in plenty of time to make the trip. I secured my plane ticket and rental car and helped him with a minor logistical glitch with his plans. As a military academy (and eventually military) parent, you learn to never take these things for granted because a million and one things can turn plans upside down in a heartbeat. 

The plans began to crystalize. I would arrive early Friday afternoon, get settled into the house, then pick up my daughter after practice so we could catch dinner before she got settled in. Her brother would arrive late that night.

We’d have Saturday morning to ourselves and while I would like to think that would mean a quiet breakfast and hanging out, I knew it was more likely they would both sleep in and we’d have a quick bite before heading to the game. After the game, we’d go to one of her favorite places for dinner, then settle in for the time together I had been anticipating for quite some time now. 

I love travel and one of the things I enjoy is the anticipation, knowing the trip is coming, contemplating the agenda, thinking about what to pack. I know a lot of folks find that tedious but to me it’s all part of the adventure. About a week out from the now long-anticipated trip, my daughter sent a rather curt note, “do you have time to talk?”

Given our communication routine, that stuck out like a sore thumb. We talk regularly and if something pops up in between, she’ll sometimes just try to catch me on Instagram chat. To ask if I had time to talk was a red flag, so my radar was up, it turns out with good reason.

Her coach had just informed her the team would be leaving the Academy immediately after the game. That picturesque Saturday night had been eliminated. After taking a moment to regroup from the shock, I told her that would work out well because she and I would have our time together Friday night, we’d all be together Saturday during the day, then my son and I would have some guys’ time together Saturday night and Sunday morning. The key, I said, was that the two of them got some time together and that would still happen.

I managed to connect with my son to share the news and after I explained my glass-half-full approach, he took it for what it was worth – the best we could do.

Now just days away from the trip, he sent me his own cryptic note via his preferred social media app. “When are you free to talk?”

Taking a deep breath, I gave him some open windows during the day. He called late in the afternoon and you could hear the tension in his voice. He started explaining the “why” before explaining the “what,” so I had to stop him. 

“What exactly is going on?” I asked.

“They canceled my leave, Dad,” he said, voice quivering. He paused then continued his rather lengthy explanation that essentially came down to the same phrase we came to use time and time again while he was at the Naval Academy – “because … Navy.”

Being only human, I took a moment to be upset with the situation (but not my son as it was all out of his hands) and got practical. First and foremost, I told him to get the tickets refunded while it’s fresh in his mind. That way if they need a copy of the orders or whatever, he could get them.

Side note: One of his fellow officers advised him to never buy plane tickets in advance, which may sound pragmatic in terms of logistics, but if you’ve ever compared the cost of a ticket purchased well in advance with one but days ahead you know that this isn’t really practical. And, yes, Southwest is awesome when it comes to this sort of thing but they don’t necessarily fly everywhere, either.

Second, I told him what he already knew, that he would have to call his sister … not text, not message via social media, not email, actually call her and break the news.

“Yeah,” he said, clearly resigned. “I know.”

And he did. 

While he was at the Naval Academy, we had to try to get used to doing normal things without him – going to movies, dinner, etc. and we would always say, “we’ll be in The Missing Man Formation,” our way of acknowledging he wouldn’t be there without having to say it.

So when Catie called, I just told her we’d be in The Missing Man Formation. Being the budding capitalist, one of her biggest concerns was the cost but I assured her it would be worth it. I mean, we had traveled out to A Day the previous year to spend a grand total of 30 minutes with her. I assured her I would be fine after leaving her and would take advantage of my Saturday evening alone to do some writing (well, here it is!) and use Sunday morning to stop by Castlewood State Park for a brief hike as it’s a place that’s been on my Colorado Springs “must-do” list for some time.

It’s just the way it is when your kids are in an academy. Their time is not their own and you can’t assume your weekend plans will materialize. Whether it’s a cross-country trip for A Day to spend those 30 minutes together or traveling a couple of hours to a Sprint Football game and hanging out for 30 or 40 minutes during the post-game meal, you take what you can get.

I did it again this weekend. We met her boyfriend for dinner at a little Korean place and had a great meal and conversation. When the two of us got to the house, we got her settled in then spent hours just talking and catching up before begrudgingly admitting we should get to bed for the day ahead. We had a quiet morning playing some games and packing the car, then headed over for the game. It’s always a joy to see your kids perform or compete and this was no different. While I enjoyed seeing some good basketball, most of my attention was focused on the sidelines. 

The game ended too quickly and she was able to steal a few extra minutes to just come and sit with me so we could say our goodbyes. Then she disappeared into tunnels of Clune Arena. 

After a quiet dinner in solitude, I find myself here, glancing about and noticing little details here and there about a house I would call home for just a couple of days. I thought about a conversation she and I had Friday night, plotting our next opportunity to get the three of us together. I managed to connect with my son to briefly describe the concept and he lit up. 

I excitedly began plotting out scenarios and possibilities and the disappointment of the plans for this weekend being dashed was replaced by the excitement of anticipation – again – and breaking out of the Missing Man Formation.

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