We just celebrated Memorial Day, in honor of all of those who have died in the line of duty. This mark of distinction should also include those who have served during wartimes. In many cases, their inner person was irretrievably altered by their experiences during combat.
My mom met my dad in 1942 at a singles dance sponsored by the USO. They both loved to dance, and were quite the spectacle on the dance floor, her with her twirling, frilly skirt and him with his handsome army uniform. Their favorite dance was the Charleston where they could execute perfect dance moves in time to the orchestra. They chastely fell in love, and made a promise to marry when he returned from his tour of duty in Germany.
The shell of a man who returned in 1945 was not the same as my mom’s dance partner. They still loved each other, of course, but the sparkle in his eye had vanished. They wedded and carried on married life, with my mom excited to start their family and have children. Lo and behold, it took more than ten years for my mom to get pregnant. (Rumor was it was because of a “shot” my dad received prior to his deployment, reportedly given to the men at the time to prevent unwanted pregnancies abroad.) Other newly married couples my mother knew experienced the same difficulty having children.
Eventually my brother and I were born, completing our perfect family unit in the 1960s. At least it seemed perfect to me, a child raised in a somewhat vagabond family that traveled haphazardly cross-country for six months out of the year. As a child, I never knew when I would come home from school to find the VW bus packed and ready to go.
We had such adventures! It wasn’t until I was a grown that I realized that the travels were my daad’s way of trying to escape his memories because staying in one place for too long was too difficult for him.
My dad was my dad and I loved him just the way he was because I knew nothing else. He was mostly silent, only raising his voice when easily annoyed by something I did, such as spilling my milk or walking too loudly down the corridor, or letting cold air come in as I shut the front door. I tried to be the perfect child so he would not be disappointed in me, but he could always find something to criticize.
He did not come to church, or to school meetings, or to sporting events, or to school performances, or to graduations, with my mom explaining he did not like to be in a crowd. He was unhappy about having to attend my wedding, and did so only by getting drunk as soon as he was there. I loved him to pieces and thought, at the time that he was like all the other dads.
He was a brilliant man and a talented architect. (Apparently he designed the TF Green Airport before it became popular.) He had a boss who understood his idiosyncrasies and allowed him to work whenever he had the inclination. My mom told me that the manager had the windows of his office painted black so no one could see in.
Apparently, my dad preferred to work in his underwear. He had an “older” secretary who would shuffle quickly into his office to bring him his coffee, trying to ignore his attire.
I had never taken offense at my dad’s absence at special events until it came to the baptism of my first-born son, Francis. We made special arrangements for the ceremony to take place after church services so there would not be a crowd, but he still could not bring himself to come. It was only years later that my mom explained to me that he could not bring himself to enter a church because, with all of the horrors that he saw during wartime, he could not reconcile that there was a loving God. I finally understood my dad and all of his odd behaviors.
I missed out on having a dad like the one who used to dance with my mom. My dad was a shell of that man, and that inalterably changed my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.
My dad had a long bout with lung cancer, and my mom cared for him at home. I would go over and rub his head for hours and help feed him. One day, he opened his eyes brightly and looked at me. I was shocked because he had been so “out of it” for weeks. We made eye contact, (also an unusual activity for him.) “I love you,” he said. I sat there in shock because he had never said that to me before. My lips started to tremble and tears started to slide down my cheeks. “I love you, too!” I said in return.
My dad passed away the next day, and I not only mourned his passing, but I mourned the man that hecould have been.