Wind: 12.91 m/h
Everyone has their Memorial Day routines, and they usually involve the grilling of a hamburger or a hot dog, the watching of a sporting event or two, or a late afternoon executive nap. Mine is no different.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found the Sunday morning of the weekend brings back memories. I usually get up before everyone, the house is quiet other than a large dog laying on my lap occasionally snoring, and I find myself remembering the people in my life that Memorial Day is all about.
I’ve never served a day in the military. Never been asked to, never had to, never wanted to. At the age of 18, I had become what my Dad use to sneeringly describe as one of those “know-it-all college kids.” When he was my age, such people went to college. He and his high school classmates went off to war.
The military was all around me, as our house was on Dominion Avenue in Norfolk, only a few miles from Gate 4 of the Amphibious Base. We spent a lot of time on that base, and knew well to stop and stand when you heard the National Anthem; learned when you saw some poor young man doing pushups under the intense stare of another that one was an officer and one was a poor enlisted man; and you appreciated Naval history.
Yes, you remembered all sorts of sports trivia as a youngster. But in my world, you also knew all about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Iwo Jima and other battles of the Pacific. I learned about them because I knew my Dad had a birds eye view of it all aboard a destroyer or two he served on during that time. I had to learn the details, however, from books at the library at the base.
That’s because my Dad would never talk about it.
He wasn’t at Pearl during the attack, but was in the Pacific soon after since he had joined the Navy a year or two prior. When I asked for details, he didn’t want to talk about it, something highly unusual for him. He was blessed with the gift of gab and could (and may times would) talk to total strangers for hours if allowed. Him not talking would be like me not cooking or writing.
It wasn’t until the final year of his life that he surprised me by pulling out a box of old pictures and memories from those days. Pics of a 20-year-old sailor from Altoona, PA with his shipmates, making the transition from Pollywog to Shellback as their ship crossed the equator. Pics of them all singing as my Dad was playing a guitar.
But there were also pics of some who had become my Dad’s friends that did not return home from the war, having been killed in battle. Which is why what he saw during those years are things he still did not want to talk about.
Not too long after this “know-it-all college kid” graduated from Virginia Tech, I’d marry into a Roanoke family, and my wife’s father also served. He was in the initial wave at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day, and spent 4 years fighting in Europe in World War II. Like my Dad, he never wanted to talk about it either.
Late in his life, the movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out and I asked if he wanted to see it. He wanted no part of it, saying he’d seen it all once before in person and had no desire to see it again. I pestered him with a few questions and he did say he remembered being scared as they were all being put on transport ships and heading out that night. He said they gave everyone some ice cream and then everyone fell asleep.
His next memory was being woken up (sounds like that ice cream had more than dairy and sugar in it) and told to get in the water and hit the beach. Yes, he said, he lost friends that day. Yes, he said, it was the most scared he’d ever been. No, he finished, he didn’t want to talk any more about it.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many friends about their Dads during combat, and they had similar tales about them not wanting to talk about it. They were all the same: They were young men thrown into war, they did what they were asked to do, watched friends die, then carried the horrors of war inside them for the rest of their days, never to speak a word of it to anyone.
Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with veterans who also fought in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. They too, don’t want to talk about those days, and they also acknowledged losing people they had come to know as good friends in those wars.
I was once involved in a project that involved personnel at Arlington National Cemetery, and at one point we walked over to a particular section of the grounds. Two members of our group were highly decorated soldiers, one in the Army, one a Marine. They mentioned probably a dozen people buried in that section they had been good friends with, and did it in such a way that it struck me that those who have served and fight in wars almost immediately accept that not everyone will be coming home at a young age.
The one I can never forget was a young marine from Olney, Md. I wrote about him over a decade ago, as I was asked to chauffer some of the family to Arlington and back for his funeral after he lost his life in Afghanistan. The sound of a 21-gun salute and the almost haunting sound of a single musician playing “Taps” as the family said its goodbyes is burned in my memory.
So on this quiet Sunday morning, I remember them all. They believed in doing something that needed to be done to defend this country. They knew there was a good chance they may not come home, and even those who did carried memories the rest of their lives they never wanted to carry.
They may not have wanted to talk about it, but we should. In a time when the phrase is often overused, these men and women were truly heroes, and their sacrifices should never be forgotten.
I raise a glass to all of them.
Rest in peace.
My Uncle was a World War II vet who landed on Normandy the second day. He went on to fight in the Ardennes Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. I didn't learn about Normandy until another vet told me at his funeral. When I asked him about the war he always told me about being sick on the troop ship going over to Europe and that was it. With one exception. I helped him on his farm a lot as a teenager and one winter day we were cutting firewood and I said I was freezing and he said "boy you don't know what being cold is". He said it was cold in those damn woods in the war. Nothing else even though I asked him several times until my mother told me to stop. I was in the Army Reserve in the 70's but the extent of my hardship was being hungover and trying to run the next morning during summer camp. smh....