Friday, May 30, 2008

Memorial Day, 1995

The paper has asked World War II veterans to relate their experiences from fifty years ago. A worthy effort to which I cannot contribute first-hand but as the son of someone in that class I would like to offer the following:

My father was a semi-proud member of the class of `45. He didn't make it to this 50th anniversary of his class' efforts overseas. His pride came from being a former Technical Sgt. of the former Army Air Corps. His final orders were to stand down; orders he gladly obeyed. From his discharge until his death in 1973 he reveled in his civilian status.

He and over 12 Million others made up the force that saved the world. Their singleness of purpose; to get home. My Dad rarely talked about those years despite encouragement from two sons weaned on John Wayne movies. He left the lessons for the historians. Whenever we dragged out pictures, he let us look but seldom offered narration; instead he would suggest a game of "catch" or chess. Always something that involved the here and now.

The closest he came to talking about his experiences happened when a former army buddy breezed through town. The buddy seemed amazed that Dad never told us about the Philippines. About four sentences into the first tale my father cut him off. That was then, this was now. Then he had that job to do. He didn't have to do that anymore.

Over the past year while the media has been revisiting the sites and emotions of WWII, I have thought often of my father. In 1940 he was a 24 year old railroad worker in Lewiston, Maine. By 1946 he was no longer that person. He had been a soldier, done his job and had returned. He pitched his barracks bag, filed his papers, stripes and ribbons away and embraced civilian life. Every Memorial Day he would unfurl the flag but he wouldn't march. His marching days were over.

If he were still around I think he would be amused by the frenzy surrounding this auspicious anniversary. I think it safe to say that he would not have gone back to the Pacific Islands. He went once so that he would never have to go again.

My father was a quiet man. In some ways I wish I could be more like him. Because he was a quiet man he would never begrudge a fellow veteran's ways of remembering or forgetting. He stressed to me that the driving force behind the war effort was an overwhelming urge to return home; to the life of a civilian. He did not hold his view as absolute, it was simply his way. I accept his quiet wisdom today as I salute all of his classmates.

Among the millions who have gone to war I think there are many veterans who regard the experience in a similar fashion. Proudest most of their discharge papers which meant that their part of the job was done. Avoiding situations which involved reliving something they would have preferred not to have had to do in the first place. People who chose to honor fallen friends by living for them each and every day.

I think my father realized that who survived and who did not was serendipity. Many people he grew up around, trained and served with, never returned. Simple mathematics told him that he wasn't alone in that experience. He appreciated the enormity of the job that was done and the sacrifices that were made but would accept no honors simply because he had been there and survived.

He was just one of many who answered the call. Many did not come back alive. That is what each of us, in our own way, must remember not just on Memorial Day but throughout our lives. At age 57, my father was a relatively young man when he died, yet he had lived far longer than most of our war-dead.

He talked me out of enlisting when I thought that might be a good idea. He didn't have to try real hard because never before had he so completely scorned anything I wanted to do. To this day I do not fully understand his motivations but I do not question it either.

If I had grown up with tales of heroics and the good times squeezed between unspeakable horrors, I would undoubtedly see things differently. Some of you may think my father's way strange but it served him well. That was the only him I knew and I think he was a pretty great guy.

Along with the ceremonies offered locally and the media coverage of remembrances world-wide there are countless quiet acknowledgments of the effort and sacrifice put forth by those we honor today. We can do them no greater honor than to enjoy and protect the legacy of freedom they left to us.

I miss my father and wish he were a feisty 79 year old today. I wish the same for all those we remember on this day of remembering.

No comments: