Friday, November 11, 2005

My Father, the Veteran

I tend to think of my dad at least once every Veteran's Day.

He came of age after World War II had already started. His mother decided her boys were not going to wait to be drafted, so she drove him down to the recruiting office to sign up. Thus, at the tender age of 18, a dreamy student who wanted to be a classical pianist became part of the US 4th Armored Infantry Division. Of above average intelligence, he was offered a chance to go to Officer's Candidate School after basic training. By the time he came out as a new second lieutenant, the D-Day invasion had already happened. He crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship stuffed with soldiers. Years later he told me how seasick he'd been from the pitching of the ship, and how he finally found a perch high up where, hiding behind a metal wall, he couldn't see anything but the sky, which made it seem as if they weren't moving around so much.

His unit went into France and Belgium, where they ended up on the fringes of the famed Battle of the Bulge, the last great German offensive of the war. He lived through many horrible experiences during the short space of a few months of intensive action. Once he was nearly killed when an artillery shell landed right behind him, knocking him flat on his face and sending a piece of shrapnel through his backpack, belt, and overcoat, and stopping just short of his skin.

Another time the convoy he was in, winding around hills in the dark, came under fire. They shot back for half an hour before discovering it was the head of their own column that had mistaken them for the enemy.

Finally, one cold winter night while they were firing blindly into the dark in a snowstorm, a single bullet finally found him, punching him in the chest and knocking him down. Men around him shouted "medic!" and "the lieutenant's hit!" but all my dad said was, "Oh my God, my forty-dollar coat!" As an officer, he had to buy his own clothes, and he had just obtained a new overcoat for the winter.

That was the end of his war. His lung had collapsed and he lost a lot of blood, but he pulled through okay. The rest of his time in Europe was spent convalescing. After the war was over he even got to do some sightseeing on leave, visiting Switzerland and Italy as well as France and Germany. By the time I knew him, his wound was an old scar--a small one on his chest near the right shoulder, a larger one on his back from the exit.

But there were other wounds. His faith had been shattered by seeing what supposedly Christian people were doing to each other in war. Combined with his study of philosophy when he went to college, the experience led him to leave the Catholic church and to become an agnostic, if not atheistic, seeker.

He was also politically disillusioned. Aware that the US had committed atrocities every bit as abhorrent as those of its enemies (the fire bombings of Dresden, most cities in Japan, and the perhaps needless nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as prominent examples), he wondered what the war had accomplished. Fascism may have been defeated overseas, but he saw it rearing its ugly head here at home in the form of the Rosenberg executions, the McCarthy hearings, and the increasing imperialism of American foreign policy. If the aim of the war had been to make our future safer, then it had failed. Instead we were living under a permanent threat of nuclear destruction more horrible than anything that had gone before.

His college education had been postponed, and even though he managed to pick up where he left off, attending Columbia University and the Julliard music school on the GI Bill, some degree of focus and drive had left him. He married his wartime sweetheart, started a family, and left New York to begin a new life in Miami.

But the new life eluded him. It became a struggle of survival as he moved from one menial job to the next ... sales clerk, postal worker, milk delivery man, nurse's aide at the Veterans Hospital. My mom went to work to bring in more money. Things were always tough between them. When I was twelve they separated, then divorced.

Eventually Dad found a career in botany through Fairchild Tropical Garden, where he worked until his death in 1974. He even went back to college at the University of Miami and got a degree in botany, graduating cum laude at the age of 38. It was never a lucrative thing to do, but he seemed to find some peace and contentment there among the lush tropical vegetation.

His old wound only hurt in certain kinds of weather, but he suffered from chronic bronchial infections for the rest of his life, and twice developed pneumonia. The second time the disease refused to respond to treatment. He died, you might say belatedly, from complications as a result of military service. He was 50 years old.

1 comment:

  1. I had never known these things about your Father. Thank you for sharing.