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Reluctant return

The Magical Stranger is the first book written by Stephen Rodrick, who spent five years of his youth in Oak Harbor. At age 13, his father, Cdr. Peter Rodrick, commander of VAQ-135 at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, was killed when the aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Indian Ocean on Nov. 28, 1979. - Provided photo
The Magical Stranger is the first book written by Stephen Rodrick, who spent five years of his youth in Oak Harbor. At age 13, his father, Cdr. Peter Rodrick, commander of VAQ-135 at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, was killed when the aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Indian Ocean on Nov. 28, 1979.
— image credit: Provided photo

When Stephen Rodrick returned to Oak Harbor and started unpeeling layers from his past, part of him became a frightened 13-year-old boy again.

He’d always dreaded the idea of coming back, avoiding such a return for three decades. But on this occasion, in July of 2009, he was back by invitation, facing his fears head on, and his feelings were hard to contain.

“The whole trip back was very emotional,” Rodrick said. “It was not easy to go back to places where some of my family’s darkest memories took place.”

Rodrick is now 46 and an accomplished magazine writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

He recently finished the book, “The Magical Stranger,” and will read passages from it at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at one of his old childhood hangouts, the Oak Harbor Library. The public is invited.

Rodrick is comfortable again on Whidbey Island and is “falling back in love with the area,” the result of spending several months around Oak Harbor and Anacortes doing research for his book over three years.

But to get to this stage, he had to be brave enough to revisit the past.

Rodrick’s world, and that of his mother, two sisters, and three other families, were forever altered when his father’s Naval aircraft flew into the Indian Ocean on Nov. 28, 1979, killing all four aviators aboard.

Cdr. Peter Rodrick was 36 at the time and had been a squadron commander of the VAQ-135 “World-Famous Black Ravens” for 127 days when the accident occurred.

Stephen Rodrick’s profession is to craft captivating stories as a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine and contributing editor at Men’s Journal, however, he has spent much of his career avoiding the idea of chronicling his family’s own personal heartache.

That changed after he got an invitation to attend a change of command ceremony for VAQ-135 at the Whidbey base on July 2, 2009, two days shy of his dad’s 30-year anniversary of taking command of that very same squadron.

The invitation was in response to an email inquiry he made to order VAQ-135 coffee mugs for his mother to replace the worn, discolored cup she had kept and still used for nearly 30 years.

Cdr. Brent “Doogie” Breining, commander of VAQ-135 at the time, invited Rodrick to come to the ceremony that would lead to James Hunter “Tupper” Ware III taking over command of the squadron.

He reluctantly agreed, attended the ceremony, met members of the “Black Ravens” and started on a path that would cover multiple visits to Whidbey Island over three years and lead to his first book.

Ware invited Rodrick to spend 18 months with the squadron as it toured the world aboard the USS Nimitz. Rodrick traveled to Hawaii, Okinawa and the Persian Gulf, stood on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier, and survived survival training as well as upside down trips in the cockpit of an EA-6B Prowler over the Cascade Mountains.

Rodrick’s craving to learn more about his father and better understand his love for the Navy was the impetus of the book. However, he didn’t want to write the book based on his own faded memories of the “Magical Stranger” who was gone so often during his youth.

He followed Ware to offer a parallel, modern-day account of Navy life that reflected similar themes.

“That’s why I wanted to follow the modern squadron,” Rodrick said. “I didn’t want it to be just about my recollections. I wanted it to be a more universal look at what happens when heroes are gone for six months, or in my situation, how do we cope when heroes don’t come home?

“The book is mostly about the squadron, and it concentrates on Hunter’s career and reaching the pinnacle of a Navy career by becoming commander of a squadron, yet is still kind of heartbroken about it because it means missing another entire school year.”

Rodrick called the experience of returning to Oak Harbor and facing difficult memories as cathartic.

Other than a quick drive-through town following a sportswriting assignment to cover former Washington State University quarterback Ryan Leaf’s NFL audition called “Pro Day” in Pullman in 1998, Rodrick hadn’t been back to Oak Harbor since the spring of 1980.

That’s when his mother packed up and moved the family to Flint, Mich., to be near relatives. In the book, Rodrick said his mother never dated again after her husband’s accident.

At Prowler Memorial Park on the Whidbey Island base, there are markers of the four killed in the EA-6B Prowler crash in 1979. The park is a short walk across the street from the VAQ-135 hangar.

Stephen Rodrick remembers the emotions he felt when he placed his hand for the first time on his dad’s marker in 2009, 30 years after his dad’s death.

During that visit, he also went back and sat on a bench at the Roller Barn, the place where he roller-skated during his five years growing up in Oak Harbor. He was sitting on that bench when he was told of his father’s accident in 1979.

Though painful, these were necessary experiences for Rodrick.

He is relieved he came back to Whidbey Island to face the past. And he is grateful to VAQ-135 for the chance he got to retrace his dad’s footsteps and understand his passion for the Navy.

There also is a passage in his book dedicated to the four Whidbey-based Naval aviators from VAQ-129 who lost their lives in a Prowler about 50 miles west of Spokane in March.

The book proved to be healing for the author who for years had fantasized that his father was just on an extended leave and would magically return one day.

“It brought me to a much greater understanding of him as a flesh and blood human being,” Rodrick said. “After my father died, his picture was in our house. We had the flag from a grateful nation. He seemed other-worldly.

“Walking a little bit in his footsteps and following the squadron gave me a little better understanding about what his day-to-day life was like. I’m very grateful.”

A website for the book, including a video interview with Stephen Rodrick, and photo gallery may be seen at www.themagicalstranger.com

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