Posted slightly different at our Veterans site, VeteransTales.org, where I invite you to read and join the conversation.)
My father was a WWII veteran, leaving college as a freshman after Pearl Harbor, enlisting, embarking for North Africa about the same time his daughter, my sister, was born, and not coming home to see his daughter until just before VE Day. He liked to brag, after he’d had a few, that I was born nine months to the day after he came home.
Everything I knew about my dad’s service in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, I heard from my grandfather. I got the sense, confirmed by years traveling around the world, that that was how a lot of lessons were passed down. Grandparents tell the stories while Pop is out working his butt off, in my dad’s case, making up for lost time.
It was Granddad who told me stories about the Arabs and the flies in Tunisia, and the heat, only he wasn’t around to tell my younger brother. So I passed those stories onto him. That’s how legends and culture have been passed on since the Indians first came here. But neither Grandad nor my dad would tell me anything about Anzio or Monte Casino, which taught me another lesson, that men who have seen dark things rarely like to talk about them. To just anyone.
My dad was the Commander of the nearby VFW until one night a member sat at a table, slowly pulled out a pistol and calmly blew his brains out. I couldn’t have been more than 6. Then when I was in my 20s Dad took me to an American Legion Hall at the country seat, 25 miles away, but just to see if their local ping pong champion could beat him. He couldn’t. He told me then that was the first Legion Hall he’s been in since ’45. The clientele “were different”, he said, a notion I never understood until the local newspaper editor and myself, both veterans, attempted to join a Legion Post in a dry county in Kentucky in the mid-80s. We were summarily attached to a Post in Louisville, 75 miles away.
In 1991 or thereabouts, after having written a patriotic op-ed favorable to the military in the liberal Cincinnati evening paper I was asked by a former American Legion national commander to give that same “speech” at a local Legion Hall dinner event. In the crowd of about 200, everyone just itching for the tables to be cleared, so the dancing could begin, I noticed all the young faces.
So, just to get a lay of the land, I asked if all the veterans would stand up and be recognized. Two old fellows at the back table stood up. My dad had just died a couple of months earlier, at age 70, so, realizing I had nothing unfoolish to say, I just folded up my Red-White-and Blue speech, stuck it inside my jacket pocket and tried to pretend I was Johnny Carson for five minutes, then gave the floor over to the dancing.
It was then I understood what my dad meant while leaving the Legion Hall at the county seat 20 years earlier.
I graduated high school in 1964. The Vietnam War officially began later that summer. From my high school class we lost one person to the war. A friend and a Marine. My brother graduated high school three years later, and he lost three, two of them best friends. He went on to serve 32 years, telling me he couldn’t leave the Navy in the hands of the people who were ruining the last eight years of his career. In 2002 they had to drag him out by his ankles for health reasons, but with a better C-in-C in charge
There’s a point to this reminiscence.
In World War II every American had “skin in the game”. There was not a town, or even neighborhood, or street, (in my neck of the woods, a hollow) that was not waist deep in that war. Every home had a son or daughter in uniform, or married to one. The “wahr” was pasted up on every store window. Every block had grief committees, people who would come over after that letter from the War Department was delivered. Everyone joined the fight at home, with scrap drives, all the way to Rosie the Riveter, who only recently passed away, in January. Her real name was Naomi Parker Fraley[…]
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