With all that is going on in America today, I find myself thinking more and more about the people who most influenced my sense of patriotism. My father and his shipmates from when he was in the Navy.
Dad served in the Navy during WWII on the Destroyer U.S.S. Thorn DD-647 in the Pacific theater. He saw action at Guadal Canal among other places. Around 1970, when I was 9 or 10, my dad got a letter from Kaj "Swede" Swenson, an old shipmate. The letter was one of inquiry and information, asking if my dad had served on the Thorn and that there was a reunion in the works. Swede had even located the Mighty T. It was in mothballs in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, on the schedule to be scuttled for target practice. But before she would sink, the former shipmates and their families would have free reign to explore and grab souvenirs. My father lit up. He got so excited about the prospect of seeing his old friends; the only ones that could understand that very influential part of his life.
So every summer during my formative years a long weekend was spent in the company of those who sailed on the Thorn. These were wonderful times. The men were fun and funny; smart and loving, and I am better for having known them. The "Skipper" had stayed in service and was Vice Admiral of the Pacific fleet at the time. The rest of the men were from every imaginable walk of life. Some successful, happy & thriving.. Some struggling with money, alcohol, blindness, depression or some other demons of life.
Between the banquets, the trips to visit the ship, there was sing-along time in the central gathering spot called the hospitality room. At any given hour though, deep conversations were occurring. These men talked about their love of country, the duty they felt and were glad to have met, no matter the hardships. They talked politics and debated passionately. There were also times when the men asked that spouses and children leave so that they could have time alone as comrades. I can only imagine that it was at these times when they remembered together and spoke of those experiences that were uniquely theirs.
My father certainly never talked about the war. He would recount anecdotes about the men occasionally, but never spoke of battle. The most personal story he would tell was when, after the war when they were spending excess ammunition, an 18mm gun blew up in his face. He would talk about being airlifted off the ship and coming home. And we saw the evidence of that fateful day in the contours of Dad's face where he carried shrapnel.
My father was a boy when he went into the Navy at the tender age of 17 to help fight WWII. The war would change him forever. I had heard relatives say that he came back from the war a different man than the one who went in, but I didn't truly understand until after my father died. In the week after we laid him to rest, the family spent more time together than usual. Mom brought out boxes of photos and memorabilia and we looked and remembered and told stories as a part of our communal grief. One of the things that my mother, with whom I was staying, brought out was my father's war diary. I had no idea that such a thing existed before.
The awe that I felt in simply holding the two volumes was huge. Then, one evening, I sat in my father's chair at the kitchen table and read aloud to my mother the contents of the diary. We laughed and cried a little now and then as we took in Dad's personal views of his time on board the Thorn and got a small glimpse at that time of his life. At some point I expressed to my mother that I felt like we were both being introduced to a man neither one of us had known. Not even Mom knew my father before he went to war. She knew the man I knew: the anxious, pessimistic, emotionally closed off, worrying, sometimes angry one. What we learned together as we shared his words was that Dad used to be an open, outwardly loving, positive, emotionally healthy man. He gave those qualities up for his country. One of the qualities that bridged the two men that were my father: his sense of humor. I could imagine that his boisterous full-body laugh that I very much miss is perhaps the only common behavior that I experienced. His sense of honor and responsibility carried through as well. He was the hardest working man I had ever known, always holding down two, and sometimes three jobs to make sure his family was well cared for and that we truly had everything we wanted. To the end, Dad took care of Mom. He did not rest until he was granted 100% disability from the V.A. so that he could leave my mom with guaranteed extra money and health benefits.
Toward the end of his life in the summer of 2007, my father and I had many a heated discussion about politics. We agreed on some things and not on others. One thing he would not back down on was his utter disdain that we were again at war. Although he couldn't express how, I knew that he identified with all of the young men and women who had willingly put themselves in harm's way for their country... for his freedom... for my freedom.
Over the years, Dad and I talked about communism and how he despised it. We would look at pictures of the breadlines in the Communist Block and he would warn that if our liberties were not protected, that could be us. He worried about the fate of the Republic.
Dad loved America. He flew his flag proudly and according to the rules until he no longer had the strength to do so. But just because the one on the pole in the front yard no longer flew, Old Glory flew inside the house and on his car. Now, his funeral flag sits in a triangular box in the den, where Dad died and had spent so much time while alive. He often disagreed with those in power, but his patriotism never wavered. I am proud to carry on with a strong sense of patriotism in my heart because of him. He did not go to war and lose himself so that a short 70 years later, communists could corrupt and "fundamentally transform" America.
Don't worry, Dad. I won't be silent. Thank you for my lessons in patriotism. I'll never forget and I will always carry you in my heart.
Not a racist!
Just no longer SILENT!