This coming Monday is Veterans’ Day. My father was a veteran and a week from Wednesday is his birthday. He would’ve been 95. It has also been 20 years since his passing, in September of ’93, just two months short of his 75th birthday. So he’s been on my mind.
Brothers of the Greatest Generation: It’s become a bit of a cliché, but I honestly think the WW2 generation deserves the moniker, and will keep their special place in history. And it wasn’t just that they grew up in the depression and fought and won one of the greatest conflicts the world has known. It was what came after, too. They came back, educated themselves, and got to work. They managed this, in part, through a couple of attributes that my dad exemplified: quiet courage and humility.
My dad grew up on a farm in south-central Michigan. He and his brother Gordon, just one year younger, both joined the army before America entered the war, right out of high school. By all accounts, my dad and Gordy had always been very close.
Quick story to illustrate. After my dad passed away and while I was still doing outside sales to lumberyards, I called on a little, old-time lumberyard near my dad’s childhood stomping grounds. I entered and a bell clanked on the door, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I navigated aisles of nail bins on creaky wood floors, making my way back to the contractor’s sales desk. There sat the lone elderly employee, leaning back behind the counter reading a newspaper. He didn’t say a word as I introduced myself, and barely glanced up after I gave him my card. He squinted down at my card through half-glasses, and finally said, “Any relation to Gaylord or Gordy?” I told him that I was Gaylord’s son and said, “You knew my dad?”
“Oh, we met,” he said with a wry smile. “Your dad made a block on me that I’ll never forget. Took me clean out of the play, which allowed your uncle to score the winning touchdown for our division championship. I’ll never forget those two. They really packed a one-two punch. Never was sure which, but one of ‘em broke my nose that night.”
I’d known that my dad had been a fullback in high school, and that his brother had been the quarterback, but I’d never heard such a story. Although he loved the game his whole life, my dad had always waved off any football prowess, saying something like: “I was just a blocking back. Gordy was the real athlete of the family.”
My dad started his service in the Airborne, but as America’s involvement in the European theater increased, he was transferred to the Blackhawks—the 86th Infantry Division. While he was training to be shipped overseas, he learned of his little brother Gordy’s death. Gordon’s ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea, on its way to invade North Africa. There were no survivors.
Respect Gained Too Late: I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t respect my dad when he was alive. We shared a very special relationship. My parents divorced when I was fourteen. I’m the youngest, and my sister went with my mom, leaving Dad and I alone in the house. All through my high school years, my dad and I learned to cook together. Shortly after the divorce, I helped to paint the house to earn money for a new stereo for my room. He went with me to pick it out. I would pull one of the big speakers out into the hall and crank it up while we made and ate dinner. This ex-GI, a big band lover and fan of The Lawrence Welk Show, indulged my every musical obsession, from The Who to The Clash, at floor-thumping volume, during dinner! Now that’s a cool dad.
But I’ve gained a much deeper respect for him and his life since his passing. He was always just dad. I’d always been a history buff, and read scores of books on WW2 during my teen years. He knew of my interest, and I knew he didn’t want to talk about it. He’d always say things like: “We were just doing our job. All we wanted was to get the job done, so we could come home.”
I once convinced him we should watch the movie Bridge at Remagen together on TV. He knew that I knew that the story centered on his division, the Blackhawks. Even knowing he didn’t want to talk, after an intense action sequence I couldn’t restrain myself. I ventured: “Did you shoot at them like that?” With hooded eyes, he gave me a half-nod. I saw his discomfort, which made me squirm. He finally said, “When they said march, we marched. When they said shoot, we shot. I decided a long time ago that it’s something I don’t want to dwell on.” We watched the rest in silence, and I knew the film was forcing him to dwell.
Over the years, I gained a few additional precious tidbits regarding his war service. One memorable one relates to his unit’s transport to the Pacific theater. The Blackhawks were one of the first divisions pulled out of Europe in late ’44. They were to be the “seasoned veterans” on the front lines for the invasion of mainland Japan. My dad told me that while they were en route, their commanding officer lined them up on deck and told them to look at the soldier on their left, then on their right. They were told that one of the three of them would not survive the first day of the attack. While they steamed toward a sure bloodbath, news came that America had dropped the bomb, and that Japan had surrendered. You can only imagine their relief. It was short-lived. They were rerouted to the Philippines, for “cleanup operations,” rooting out Japanese that would not believe the war was over. Can you imagine putting your life on the line, watching your buddies become casualties, knowing that the war was over? The Blackhawks didn’t make it home until December of ’46.
My Kind of Coach: But it hasn’t just been his war experience that I’ve gained respect for. My dad was a postman for almost 30 years. He trained so many letter carriers, the whole post office called him Coach. He walked from the post office to his route and back every day, never taking a truck although he was offered many. He went to work at 5:30 every day, often before the snow plow had come by. When he had a heart attack at age 64, he had accumulated enough unused sick days to carry him to his retirement—over a year’s worth.
I’ve already written about my dad’s love of gardening, here. He grew up on the farm, and his inner farm-boy remained intact throughout his life. He loved big family dinners after a hard day’s honest work. His dedication to hand-turning the compost into the soil of his expansive vegetable garden each spring was uniquely definitive of his character. Dedication and patience yields results. There was no use jawin’ about it, or searching for a miracle cure (those motorized tillers were “for the birds” according to Dad). Just dig in and get the job done.
Parental Guidance Has Been Suggested: Even though my dad passed away a decade before my writing journey began in earnest (almost to the day), I’ve been thinking about his influence on my work. I may not have become a gardener, but in regard to finishing manuscripts, I know that I learned my tendency to “just dig in and get the job done.”
And, in hindsight, I see so much of him in the work itself. It might seem strange to those who’ve read my work, as the primary protagonist of my trilogy feels his father’s legacy is a curse. But that is not where I see him. My MC’s grandfather and elder mentor are both calming and steadying influences. They remind him that what really matters can only be found inside. I see Dad in these elder mentor figures. My dad was 44 when I was born, so many of my most powerful memories of him are from when he was in his fifties (my age now). In a way, he was always very grandfatherly with me (since I was the baby, I’m certain my elder siblings would agree that he was much sterner and stricter with them).
My protagonist abhors the glorification of war. He is honor-bound to creating a peaceful existence for his people, even in the face of being named a coward for his principles. From his elders he’s learned that what other people say about him means nothing, that staying true to himself is all. But when there is no other recourse, he knows there’s no sense jawin’ about it or hoping for a miracle. He digs in and gets the job done.
Yeah, there’s quite a bit of my father in my work. So thanks, Dad. Miss ya, Big Guy.
Do you see your parents in your work? Care to share?