On memorial day my thoughts always turn to my father. I am not going to claim he was a great man or a brave hero. He was just my father and taught me much about life. Tomorrow after breakfast I’ll put up my American flag on the house and at sundown I’ll bring it back in. During the day I’ll remember dad and will likely stop a few times to look at his flag in its box on the shelf in my office above my desk.
I can see it from here – a triangular box with a glass front holding the last thing I ever received from father. Not directly, but when the VA doctor called me to say he had just died she reminded me to ask for his flag at the mortuary. She said that sometime mortuaries forget to give the veteran’s family the flag even though the VA always sends one. As a veteran of World War Two he earned this honor from our nation(see http://www.cem.va.gov/bbene/bflags.asp).
Politically I’d guess you’d call my father a liberal and a pacifist. He was against the Vietnam War from its earliest beginnings and was vocal in his dislike of firearms. He never owned a weapon and the only time he ever fired one was during his basic training in 1942. He told stories of being on the firing range learning to shoot with an Enfield rifle. Early in the war there was a shortage of the M-1 rifle that came to be the iconic weapon of the foot weary GI. Just before he was sent overseas he was issued an M-1 and qualified as a marksman on the range with one. Firing a rifle was about the only combat skill my father ever learned and his stories of holding the weapons were mixed with pride and sadness – pride at his skill with the weapon but sadness that they existed. He usually ended any story he told about the Enfield, which he preferred over the M-1 (likely because he got a better score with the Enfield) with the phase, “but I am happy to say that I never had to fire my weapon in anger.”
Which is just as well. My father was not the solider type but he turned 18 the month after the Pearl Harbor attack and in time was drafted into the Army. He then did the one thing that would best describe his action in WWII – he followed orders and reported for duty.
Just like millions of other young men and boys he packed a small case and boarded a train for an uncertain future. In later years he told many stories about his training and service – some of them funny and all drilled into his very soul. He told them so often during his life that I think I can tell most of them with just as much enthusiasm and humor as he did.
But he was no solider. He was a man called by his country to do his duty as best he could.
During basic training he proved to be physically uncoordinated and more likely to fall into a foxhole injuring our troops long before he sighted the enemy. Father always told this story about how during the final week of basic training when they had to run the obstacle course. When father got to the wall they had to climb over, father made one attempt but fell after jumping about half way up. In an impatient stage whisper the sergeant groaned, “Just go around Reynolds, go around.”
But father was smart. Very smart and the army need men who could think and learn skilled tasks. They sent father to radar school to learn to repair and operate radar sets.
The Army taught him to repair and operate radar sets such as SCR-296, SCR-271 and SCR-584. That in itself was an amazing feat – father had little mechanical ability and after the war didn’t even own a screw driver – no one would let him attempt to repair anything. He simply did as he was ordered and learned.
After training he was sent to the Aleutian Islands with the coast artillery corps as part of the garrison troops sent there to build an Army airfield. His job was to keep a radar watch on the ocean, warn of approaching enemy ships and aircraft and in the event of invasion to provide information needed by artillery fire control center. He sat at his set, maintained it, operated it and kept watch for an enemy that never came.
The air base sent its air craft to bomb northern Japan and my father fought boredom and the cold. He told stories of the cold and brushing snow off the seats in the latrine and how the wind would blow through the gaps in the wall boards. Father told me there were two seasons in the Aleutians – winter and the 23rd of July.
When the war was over he came home, went to college, got a job and raised a family. It wasn’t an easy life for him, he suffered from eyeritious, heart disease and alcoholism. At the age of 48 he finally confronted his alcoholism and sought help. He never made much money or gained fame. He would count his greatest achievement as dying sober – the last 29 years of his life – and out living his father.
I do have to admit lying to my father about that sober part. He really wanted to make it to 30 years. In his last months he was losing his memory bit by bit. There was this one day when his mind was clear he asked me, “Have I lived longer than my father?”
“Yes dad, you’ve outlived him by four years now,” I replied.
“Is it July yet? I’ll be sober 30 years in July.”
“July next month. I’ll get you a 30 year token.”
“Good. I wanted to out live my old man and I wanted to make it 30 years.” Then he fell asleep and never recognized me again as the brain damage took away his memories.
He died in August 2001 at the age of 77. I figure he gets some credit for his service to this nation. He didn’t serve in combat but he stood by his radar, stood his watches and followed his orders. Some were called to do more but my father did no less than what he was called to do.
Tomorrow I’ll hoist a flag and remember him and the others he served with.
My Memorial Day Posts from last year:
Remembering the Vietnam Veterans Memorial