My dad always had a strange reaction to Memorial Day Weekend, or so it seemed to me as a little girl. Yes, it was the beginning of summer and we celebrated (if that is the right word) with hamburgers on the grill and root beer floats.
But I realized from an early age that the so-called “holiday” was a time when my dad, a World War Two Army veteran and normally a very upbeat person, was also quietly grieving.
He didn’t say much. I believe he wanted to protect us, his children, from the horrors of the world. When he did talk about the war, it was nearly always about the goofy things that had happened, the hijinks and practical jokes because, after all, he and his Army buddies were so young they were little more than boys. My dad didn’t even shave yet.
Over the years, he began to talk about how lucky he’d been, how he could have been in much worse places, how his near-misses had been exactly that – near-misses.
He would talk (if I asked him) about the friends from high school, his Boy Scout troop, church, even his high school swim team who “didn’t make it home.”
Then, of course, there were his fellow soldiers. The one from Mississippi, for example, who, like Dad, was an only child. How this particular guy had died not from war wounds but from malaria. How Dad wrote to that soldier’s mother every Christmas until she died, decades after the war ended.
Very late in his life, Dad shared a memory from basic training. “We were doing a training exercise where we had to crawl on our bellies with live ammunition being shot over our heads,” he told me. “There was this guy. Same age as me. He lifted his head just a little too high and he was killed instantly. That was the first time I saw things I wish I hadn’t. And I wasn’t even overseas yet.”
To the world, his generation was known as the greatest. To Dad, his was a damaged generation of people who happened to be born at the wrong time. The survivors would be haunted by the questions of what might have been.
Men like my dad lived their entire lives with the scars of their war experiences. When he was about 80 years old, Dad had a major operation. When he awoke, he thought he was on the back of an Army truck on the Burma Road. The war was long over, but it had shaped and largely defined my father’s life. It never left him.
But Dad lived his long life- he died last fall at 92 – with an ever-present sense of gratitude. He never took a day for granted. He never lost his deep appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many others. I believe he endeavored to live a happy, worthy life in part because he felt he was living for those who didn’t get the chance.