My dad has been asked by the widow of his best friend in the Army to contribute to a memory book about her deceased husband. Specifically, the widow has requested tales of heroism and valor during my father and her husband’s stint in the Army Air Corps, 1944 to 1945.
This has been a difficult assignment for my 80-year-old dad. He’s not much of a writer or reader, but more important, he’s fairly certain his old buddy, Ted, told his wife and children some lies about the Army and his individual contributions to World War II. My father knew he was in trouble when the widow said to be sure to include stories of flying B-52 bombers. The war ended before Ted and my dad got a chance to climb inside an airplane, let alone fly one. My father wants to cover his buddy’s ass, but he doesn’t know exactly what he’s covering for.
My mother and I have suggested that he simply tell the truth, but that’s not an easy thing to do when the truth is 62 years old, and buried under a lifetime of experiences, emotions, and sentiment. My dad began the first chapter by waxing poetic about his personal departure from his small town in southern New Jersey. He kissed his parents goodbye, hopped a train to Philadelphia, and enlisted for military duty. We advised him to get to his initial meeting with Ted as quickly as possible. He didn’t need to tell us how sad and excited he was about leaving home. This was Ted’s story, not his.
My dad asked me to edit his writings. At first I was hesitant. Did I really want to read the chronicles of two naïve 18-year-olds who never got further than Texas during World War II? But after several requests, and desperate e-mails, I acquiesced.
The initial submission was hard to get through, but before long I found a natural rhythm to my dad’s words. I sent him an edited version of the first installment with questions. What did he talk about with Ted on that long, hot, three-day troop train ride to Keesler Field, Biloxi, Miss.? How did he pass the time? Was he bored, scared, anxious? My father responded with additional details, and as his memories multiplied and expanded, his language became more vivid, his sentences straightforward and eloquent.
Between the lines I can catch his innocence, bewilderment, fears, and patriotism. There are passages that are sad, funny, and poignant. My father spends a great deal of time skirting around the details of “short arm inspections,” an apparently life changing experience I must decode, but that I eventually comprehend.
There is a lot of marching and drilling, drilling and marching, saluting and additional saluting, bad food and more bad food. I can overhear pieces of conversations between his comrades, imagine the sorrow of young men reduced to tears over letters (or no letters) from home, glimpse the humiliation and panic of guys “washed-out” and sent to units heading for the front. There is even a boxing match with a bear, and, when my father and Ted finally get to Eagle Pass, Texas, there are several revealing, drunken forays across the Mexican-U.S. border.
It’s the little details that catch my attention, that take my breath away and let me know what my dad was really like when he was an inexperienced, innocent young kid. A passage that lists the contents of his Army-issued duffel bag is particularly telling: socks and underwear, shorts and T-shirts, a Bible from my grandmother, a photograph of my 17-year-old mother in her bathing suit, an in-depth cataloging of his shaving and sewing kits.
I take a break from editing my dad’s stories. I read the headlines coming out of Iraq. I see the film clips on the evening news of young men in Army-issued clothes eating really bad food, carrying rifles, marching back and forth, not necessarily knowing what they are doing, or why they are there.
I hope they come home alive and undamaged, able to partake fully in life, able to one day write down their own truths, their own stories and memories to share with children, grandchildren, and friends.