We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it. – William Faulkner
My Dad racing after WWII
My Dad passed away at the beginning of July a year ago. Because of the pandemic, I was not able to travel back for his funeral. But I held my own memorial service for him beside the Pacific Ocean he loved. I felt his spirit animated by the bald eagle perched nearby and the roiling surf. Standing in the swirling currents, as the rising sun warmed the cool morning air, I communed with the great spirit I knew my whole life – my warrior/artist father. He taught me many things. In my heart, his heroic service in World War Two will forever be balanced by his artistic nature which I admired just as greatly.
My Dad was a great student in school. He attended a Lutheran high school where he excelled in science and was a cheerleader. His intellect and creativity blossomed as exemplified by a sketch of a jet airplane on his notebook – long before such planes existed. He was the first in his family to graduate high school. But before he could graduate the horrors of war inflamed the world. During his senior year, Pop enlisted in the Navy just after Pearl Harbor. But they delayed his enlistment until after graduation. He was inducted just after his 18th birthday.
After the war, my Dad and all my uncles struggled to find their way forward. The glow of youth was erased forever from their faces. They consciously pushed away the terrifying images of distant battlefields. But the horrific specters of grisly death stalked them in their restless sleep. Alcohol and cigarettes numbed the pain somewhat but furthered the degradation of their spirits.
When I was a little kid, Pop would stretch out on the floor and hoist us in the air on his knees and hands. He built a brick patio so we could sit outside and enjoy ourselves. One summer we had a small shallow swimming pool on the patio just beyond the clothes lines. The old man dug out his Hawaiian-style wrap around swim trunks and submerged like an alligator making us laugh hysterically. At night we sat under the stars and Pop would sing “Swinging on a Star”: Or would you like to swing on a star / Carry moonbeams home in a jar/ And be better off than you are / Or would you rather be a fish… He would teach me a little about navigating by the stars which his navigator, my namesake, taught him. But the factory, aging body and alcoholism weighed his spirit down more and more each year.
His, sullen, angry side grew along with his beer belly. But there was a shining light in his eyes I continued to see throughout all the turbulent times with my siblings. I would stay up late on Friday nights to say goodnight to Pop when he dragged in from the 4-12 shift at the factory. He smelled of sweat, grime, diesel and beer. He sometimes stopped off for a beer or two on his way home. Pop had bought an old fiat for $100 and fixed it masterfully. His mechanical creativity was amazing. He could diagnose an engine simply by listening. Around 12:30 AM, I would listen for that Fiat turn off the old Route 66 and come roaring through the sleeping neighborhood. I’d pretend to be reading a book when he stuck his head into the tiny room I shared with my brother, and say, “Hey Pop. How was work?” “Same old shit.” was his usual reply. I’d tell him “Goodnight. Sweet dreams.” He’d say, Sweet dreams.” And for a few seconds that beautiful light of his true artistic spirit would return.
During my first two years of college, my Dad and I used to go St. Louis Cardinal baseball games. He would drive down and I would drive back, because he would enjoy a few large beers during the game. I still have the ticket stubs from those games. We had a lot of fun together, and he could tell his buddies about the game the next day. We talked about many things. He told me things he never told my siblings because they rarely talked to him then. I remembered the satisfied look on Pop’s face during those games. He was happy to be able to share the game with his son, and I was proud to be with him. His powerful baritone voice would ring out over the section during the national anthem. I asked him why he liked to sing, in the shower and while he worked. “Keeps my mind off other things.” I’m sure he meant awful memories and the pressure of raising five kids.
During my uncle’s last visit to our house, years later, my Dad stepped into the bathroom and started singing to himself. My uncle leaned over to me and said reverently of his younger brother, “That guy saw some terrible things during the war. He really went through hell.” For our country’s freedom and the freedom of people he would never meet, my Dad sacrificed his youth and inner peace. What price can be put on the bits of his soul that he left behind on those distant islands of the South Pacific during the war?
Later after a terrible divorce, my kids and I made a home of my grandparents old house next door to my Dad. One year a floppy eared rabbit showed up in the backyard. My Dad was ecstatic. I had never seen him act that tenderly before. By days end he had built a pen and two days later he had constructed a beautiful rabbit hutch for Buckminster the bunny. While I was helping him build the hutch, he told me the story of the rabbits he kept as a boy. He loved those rabbits and tended to their every need. But one day my mean as hell uncle left the pen open and all the rabbits ran away. Pop said something broke inside him when he came home and found his beloved rabbits missing. Many time, I would stand in my kitchen window and watch him peacefully stroking the rabbit’s fur. For a few minutes, the old warrior’s youthful innocence returned and his spirit was free. On this Fourth of July, I salute the sacrifices made by so many men and women in uniform and their families. Let their spirits forever soar over the land of the free and the home of the brave.