My father wanted to retire young and rich. He almost made it.
When Dad was 37 years old, he decided not to re-enlist in the Air Force after 20 years of service because doing so would have meant moving to Panama and being away from home for three weeks of the month. Instead, he chose to leave the military in the middle of the Reagan recession and try his hand at civilian life.
Through contacts he’d made in the service, he persuaded someone at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to create a position for him as a civilian contractor. Everything was in place for him to start at the Academy as soon as he retired from the service. The only thing left for him to do was sign the contract and seal the deal.
This was before fax machines were commonplace, so Dad arranged to drive out to Colorado from California and sign the papers in person. He loved road trips and the Rocky Mountains, and didn’t think twice about heading for the hills in the family’s Ford Fairmont station wagon. I can picture him cruising through the columbines, singing songs of praise at the top of his lungs like one of the carolers in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Little did he know that in the midst of his revelry, Congress was passing a law requiring military retirees to wait six months before returning as civilian contractors. When he arrived at the Academy, it was to the sad news that he no longer had a job offer and none would be forthcoming. He had done such a good job convincing them of the need to hire him, that they couldn’t leave the position unfilled for the six months to pass before he became eligible for employment again.
So, instead of moving to cool and colorful Colorado Springs, Colorado, my mom, twin sister, and I moved into a dusty, old double-wide with Dad’s parents–my Memere and Pepere–on Patricia Ann Lane in Peoria, Arizona, where we waited for two months for Dad to join us.
Living in a double-wide trailer is exactly as glamorous as it sounds. My “room” was a twin bed hidden behind the bookshelf that separated the formal dining area from the penetralia of my grandparents’ home where Memere kept her extensive collection of seasonal decorations and back issues of Reader’s Digest. My sister’s room was real–girls need their privacy, after all–but not much bigger than a closet. We took baths (not showers) in an avocado green bathtub and used an old Cool Whip container to rinse our hair.
Our quarters were cramped, but my sister and I were blissfully unaware of the life we might have been living in the shadow of Pikes Peak. We thought it was normal to sit on beach towels on (plastic-covered) car seats as Memere drove us to school and normal to pull over multiple times on the way home to pick up aluminum cans when Pepere drove us back. We loved that we got Nilla wafers and a bowl of ice cream every day as a treat when we got home. (Pepere was an ex-dairyman and had his priorities straight.)
As far as we knew, life was going according to plan, but knowing what I know now about in-laws and domesticity, I suspect my mother did not share our conviction. It’s hard to believe that Peoria, AZ was what she had in mind when she abandoned her island paradise of Puerto Rico for a blue-eyed gringo. For her, our circumstances were less than ideal. I’m sure my father felt at least a little like a failure when he couldn’t find work as a hospital administrator (his line of work in the Air Force) and went to work instead as a janitor at the VA.
As children we think, the expression “the Lord works in mysterious ways” is just one of those grown up things people say when they don’t know what’s going on. As adolescents, we’re quick to dismiss it as a cliche, but, after 40 or so circuits around the sun, you come to regard it as a fact as plain as plantains.
God draws straight with crooked lines. He just does. When you’re in the thick of things, you don’t always think God’s got the best grip on the situation, but when you look back on all the times that He zigged when you would have zagged, you’ll see that He knew what He was up to.
Times were trying for my parents in that trailer, but in retrospect, it’s clear that they were good. If it weren’t for those tough times, my dad wouldn’t have learned how to walk by faith and not by sight. My mom might never have been inspired by his example to come into the Catholic Church. My sister and I might not have come to love the Lord at a young age.
If fax machines were more widespread in the ’80s, I might not have gone to grade school and high school in Arizona, and I wouldn’t have gone to college in Arizona. I would never have met my wife. Or my children. And where would all the stories of God’s miraculous intervention in our family’s life that I pass on to my children have come from?
It turns out my sister and I were right after all–life had been going according to plan, just not ours. I am so grateful that my dad didn’t get that job at the Air Force Academy. Every good thing in my life is the result of that one seemingly bad thing that brought us where we didn’t want to go.