My memories of childhood are broken into pieces. When I try to recall the earliest days in my mind, I go back to that yellowish, peaceful, and warm afternoon about 19 years ago.
It was 1997. I remember that year particularly because it was when the President Deng Xiaoping passed away and the unit that my parents at was responsible for spreading his ashes to the East China Sea. I did not know any of these at that time, though. All I could remember was that a few days before that special afternoon when planes would actually go out and spread the ashes, the whole base was dominated by the weird, serious, and busy atmosphere. I could feel the tension on the base, even though nobody ever told me what they were doing. I could tell that there was something special going to happen from their faces and eyes, but I didn’t know what it was.
Finally, that day came. My mom woke up early. She went out and put away the clothes hanging outside of our balcony. She told me that no clothes were supposed to be hung out on that day. “But we do that all the time,” I was confused.”Yeah, I know, but not today,” my mom answered without stopping collecting the clothes outside. I was not satisfied with her answer, but I helped her anyway. She kept telling me to stay at home that day and something like nobody could go outside. I was filled with questions. Why? What if they need to work? How about the kids going to school?
I was not enrolled in any kindergarten at that time because we were so far away from the town and there wasn’t any proper kindergarten on the base. I was basically home-educated until I went to the elementary school. I was happy with that because I had plenty of time doing anything I would like to do. I spent lots of time outside, running around with other kids, picking up flowers to make crowns, and sometimes going on a little adventure outside of the base. When I at home, I would just do some paintings because I could barely write anything. I was not taught painting anything as my mom didn’t know much about painting. She was very supportive in my art education, though. She bought me color pens and papers. She even bought me an electronic piano for my fourth birthday.
I was planning to spend the whole day painting at home, and maybe some cartoons afterward. Things did not go as I expected. My mom called me from the kitchen.”Go and take this to Aunt Zhao next door,” she handed me a bowl.”You just said that we were not supposed to go outside today.””I know, but I really need to give this to her now. This is not the right thing to do, but I do not have a choice.””Why me?””Because you are a smaller target, and if you move quickly and secretly, I don’t think they will find out.””Sounds like an operation something.””Yeah, think of it as an operation, and remember to cling to the wall.”
I was actually very happy about the mission as I could go out for a while. I quietly walked downstairs, sneaked alongside the wall of the building, and I could hear my heart pounding all the time.When I turned to the corner of the apartment building, I ran into the most unforgettable moment in my childhood. It was a warm early spring afternoon when the sunshine gently poured onto me. There was nobody on the white cracked cement road. The grass alongside the road remaining yellow and waved when the breeze was walking through. I could even smell the fragrance from the lawn. The smoky, light, and, unique scent is still vivid today. There was a plane sitting on the further yard alone. I loved playing on that plane when I climbed up and sat on the top of the cockpit, pretending I was flying in the sky. Kids on the base all loved that deserted plane, but today it was just itself. The eerie quietness prevailed the whole space, and I was struck by the scene. I stopped there to appreciate the surreal silence. I forgot of the mission for a while.
I could not remember for how long before I came to realize that I was not supposed to be there. I quickly ran to Aunt Zhao’s apartment and handed over the bowl to her. When I came back and just about to pass the spot I was standing, I looked back and tried to store this scene to my memory.
Many years later, when I mentioned that day at the dinner table to my mom, she could not remember anything about sending me out. She did remember that day, however, because it was such a special and sensitive time for the whole country. While we mourned the loss of the former president, we have to prevent anything that could possibly disturb the ash spreading ceremony. The base was actually on the first-degree combat readiness to make sure the ceremony went smoothly. I have never imagined that I would be involved in this historical event in such an intimate, personal, while detached way.
Looking back to all the memories, I think my relationship with the base has always been ambivalent. I was so close to it, yet I was irrelevant from everything happened there. I have always seen it through my own lens. I am not sure if this is good or not, but this is how I grew up, and this is how all the stories start.