In 1942, no one instantly became a hero simply by enlisting. Everybody signed up, if they could. Heroes were people who did something selfless and extraordinary under extreme circumstances. Often they died and were declared heroes posthumously. Sometimes they survived to collect their medals, and became heroes quietly. Like my Dad.
96th Infantry Division (“Deadeye Division”), 382nd Infantry Regiment. Battles of Leyte and Okinawa. Wounded twice. Survived, came home in 1945, lost two front teeth in a bar fight with a Marine in San Diego, fresh off the transport. Went to college on the GI bill, then law school, and worked his way across the Atlantic on ships each summer, to drink wine, eat bread and dream in French, back when the French actually liked Americans. Graduated 1952, married Mom in 1954 and provided for her, my brothers and me. Died in 2003, age 78.
Dad carried the trauma of war with him for 58 years – dampened, but not obliterated, by as much scotch as he could absorb each evening before shuffling off to bed. But he had already been traumatized before the war. His mother committed suicide when he was 12; after the war, his eldest brother also took his own life. A few decades later, his younger brother died at just 50. How much can one man take?
A lot, it seems. Endurance is a type of heroism. “Soldiering on.”
I’m stumped that I can’t find that picture of Dad in his army uniform, at 17, in 1942. I loved that picture. I don’t know if he lied about his age, but he joined up and set off for war, and they let him.
Here’s another picture of him from around then, jamming on the drums, before he went for training (which included Army Ranger training, when he was required to jump off a pier in San Diego, about 40 feet above the ocean):
Mom was a hero in her way, too. She quit her job at the peak of her nursing career to raise my brothers and me, in the 1950s style, staying home while Dad went to the office. I know she felt thwarted in some way. She found outlets in volunteer work. Dad wasn’t easy to live with at times, and we kids weren’t appreciative enough of Mom. She was hypercritical of me, I thought. But in this, my “third quarter” of life, I find that I understand her better. I get it, now, Mom.
I hadn’t cried in a while, about my parents or about my late husband Mike. But yesterday morning, listening to some random playlist while paying bills or keeping ledgers or whatever I was doing, I heard Eva Cassidy’s version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”
Mike liked Sting, and he and Angelic Daughter kept a CD with that song on it among their collection in the car, to listen to as they drove around, running errands. Something about Cassidy’s version went straight to the hurt and the loss and the missing him, to the regrets and the inadequate, unfinished apologies, the time wasted in anger and blame, and the shock at the magnitude of the loss, even when I knew it was coming.
I went to find that picture of Dad (not there) and picked up one of Mike instead. I noticed tears dropping off, around me, when I blinked, instead of running down my cheeks. Mike faced his illness bravely, trying to stay with us, and calmly accepted hospice when the time came. Another kind of heroism.
I haven’t posted a picture of Mike here – some idea of privacy, or just grief, not being ready to share this picture that I love so much. But yesterday I realized it’s time. I’ve written so much about him, it’s only fair you should see what a beautiful, vital man he was (cola and poetry on my parent’s back deck):
I’m grateful for this private Memorial Day 2020. No parades, no loud barbecues, no toy soldiers flapping flags while swilling beer, to “honor” those who actually serve, or those who, like my Dad, personally experienced the horrors of war. In the midst of massive and incomprehensible loss, numb shock, ongoing uncertainty, isolation and loneliness (front page, NYT today – 100,000 dead from the pandemic in the US alone, and counting) I cope by retreating to my personal, familiar grief, letting the tears come, remembering Dad, Mom, and Mike.
Both Dad and Mike made pancakes on occasionally on weekends. They were much better at making them than me. I wanted to make pancakes for Angelic Daughter today, but discovered we’re out of syrup.
She didn’t really want them, anyway. When I asked her what she wanted to do today, she listed several options, and then chose, “talk to Mom.”
Remembering those now walking in Elysian fields of gold, I remain, your grieving, grateful,