My father was sleeping, curled up in the small chair next to the picture window. I thought this strange, because he never sat in that chair. It was my mother’s perch, from which she peered out at the street watching for neighbors and waiting every day for the mail truck to arrive. When she was old, she’d doze on and off during the day and evening. I’d look at her and think she looked tired, worn out from seventy years of the burdens women carry.
Dad must have sensed I was nearby, and he suddenly awoke and looked at me. It was odd that he seemed younger than I. I said, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. During the war, when did you leave the South Pacific and get sent to Texas?” I was conceived in Texas sometime in early 1945. I had always thought that the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had brought him home, but these were in August 1945. Why did he come back before that? Did he get a leave and then return? Was he wounded? Sick?
He gazed at me quizzically. Then he got up and went to a bookshelf and got out a large map. He taped it to a wall and stared. Then he began to move his finger over the map’s surface. I got closer and saw that he was tracing out a path along islands in the Pacific. Samoa, Ellice Islands, Tarawa, Hawai’i. It was as if here were trying to remember all those remote places he’d been when he was a young naval radioman. He turned toward me and said, “I can’t remember.”
A dozen years ago, I saw a map made of coral at a public building in Honolulu that depicted the sites of battles in the Pacific during the Second World War. I looked for all of the islands on which dad told me he’d done duty. We’re in Hawai’i now. Maybe this is why I had the dream.
The dead can’t answer our questions. So why don’t we ask them when they’re alive? My mother was seventeen and my father twenty when they got married, in 1942. Then he left for the duration of the war. What was her life like then? Was she afraid he’d die? Why didn’t she wait to see if he survived and then wed? What exactly did he do on those islands? His naval record doesn’t shed much light; for many months, it just says he was “in the field.” He only told me that he could smell the dead bodies from a plane, that some marines gouged out the gold in the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers, and that he drew a royal flush once while playing poker.
He usually spoke of those days fondly. Why would anyone speak that way about war? He expressed compassion when he talked about Samoans, and he wrote letters to Congress when he learned that the United States was mistreating the people of American Samoa. Why? How did mom and dad cope with reunion after so long a time? Living with his mother-in-law and my mother’s brother in a tiny mine company shack? Did he take me in his arms and smile when I was born? Did they fight? Did she think life would get better and better? Why didn’t he ever take her to those islands that were so important to him, that shaped his future life? Why didn’t I take them both?
Beautiful and disturbing story. I seldom dream of our deceased loved ones – both family and many cherished Ford City friends. I do often think of my parents and grandparents and most recently about aunts and uncles and the dear friends you and I have lost.
I recall my father seldom speaking of his days in the European theater flying the Vulgar Vulture IE the nose art on his B-26 medium bomber. When I was very young I would watch him shave in the morning, dreaming that I could be able to one day do that. I rememberr him putting down his razor and looking at me. He said, “Ya know Jimmie, every morning I shave my butt.”
Naturally I aske what he meant. He explained that in the early days of skin grafting he was fortunate enough that the doctors had learned to take skin from his ass and graft it to his face. I’m sure memories returned every time the razor touched his face. Of course he had been shot down over Regensburg, Germany the last few weeks of the war. He suffered 3 rd degree burns all over his body and remained in a prison camp for the duration.
Long story – but about 10 years ago I was able to get hold of a report he had written for his commanding officer. It explained what happened on that last mission. It included the fate of the crew.
When our fathers crossed paths in Ford City and their eyes met, they did not even have to speak. Men like your dad and mine were brothers. Thank you for sharing your very personal thoughts, my friend.
Jim, Thanks for the kind words, but thanks especially for your story about your dad. He must have suffered a great deal. It is almost too awful to grasp. I always wondered how it was that people expected men back from WW2 to just go about their daily lives once they got home, as if traumatic things hadn’t happened to them. After Vietnam, we started to know about and hear about PTSD, the impact of severe injuries, and similar problems. But for WW2 veterans, not so much. Also, we seldom knew exactly what did happen. The husband of one of my mom’s cousins was shot down like your dad and had to have multiple surgeries. His face looked a bit odd and he talked funny. I always wondered why. He was a nice guy and my dad liked him. which wasn’t always the case with dad and my mom’s relatives. Later, I found out what happened to him. No wonder the veterans liked him. He didn’t talk about it much, so they didn’t either.
BTW, I think sometimes about how often we shot hoops at Steiner’s. In the snow, anytime. With Dan Boone and lots of others. Good days. I played b-ball nearly every day for about 30 years after I started teaching. We used to say that a day without basketball was like a day without sunshine!
It was so nice to read your note. The first two sentences of your last paragraph would have made my dad smile and say “yes” to himself. I was proud of my father as I am sure you were of yours. And he must have been proud of you, that you grew up to be a good person.
Nice stories guys! I’m approaching the third anniversary of my Dad’s passing, Ford City teacher, Larry Shedwick, his mom died only 2 weeks prior to him and all I have thought since is, The memory keepers are gone…I’m grateful for the stories I do have and long for those that I will hear in the Great Beyond. I think that we just never believed that those we love would leave…it was so fast and they were gone.