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November 11, 2012
To Dad on Veterans Day
In the right drawer of my desk there is a picture of my dad in a U.S. Army uniform. In the picture, he's about 30 years old and he is looking straight at the camera with a clear, steady, unflinching gaze.
He reminds me of my youngest son. The same steady gaze, the same full lips; and, as Nathan humorously reminds me, the same hair pattern. "Thanks Grandad," Nathan smiles ruefully, rubbing his balding head.
The year the picture of Dad was taken was 1944, the year of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last chance to push back the Allies and to obtain a negotiated peace. 89,000 American casualties were sustained. But the Germans fared worse.
My dad, innocently enough, had kept ahead of the draft because of the number of children he and Mom had. But at last even my folks' dedication to the Genesis mandate to replenish the earth was not enough to keep the Army at bay.
But Dad wasn't drafted as an Army regular. In fact, he wasn't drafted at all. He was tapped as a civilian advisor. Plucked from his job at All American Engineering, he was chosen to head to England to coach Royal Air Force and American pilots on how to employ an invention he had helped develop. It was designed to pick up soldiers stranded behind enemy lines.
Dad wanted a way to serve his country, and he was determined to go, despite leaving his expectant wife and four kids behind. He knew, Mom was later to tell me, that he might not come back, but his love for his country drove him on.
As fate would have it, the plane that was to bear him East to England burst into flames on the runway at Newfoundland. Everyone got out safely, slightly singed but none the worse except for some smoke inhalation. But the plane burned up along with all its contents, including Dad's uniform, which was that of an Army Captain. Back to New York for another flight and another uniform; then off to England.
Dad, a man of few words, would not often speak about his stay in London. That is because once in England, Dad faced the last gasp effort of the German Wehrmacht to destroy London. Germany's silent and deadly V-2 rockets smashed into the city day after day and night after night. In some ways, he was later to say, the V-2 rockets were worse than the bombs of the initial blitz, because of the silence; the dreadful silence. You could be standing in the street and hear absolutely nothing, know nothing, suspect nothing until you felt the earth shudder and saw plumes of dirt and rubble rise and fall like reversed waterfalls in the dank, dusty air.
In spite of the fear, the risk of death and not knowing when the war would ever end, Dad never forgot to write a daily letter to Mom. They were always brief and to the point, Mom remembered. Dad was a man of few words; and, as he was later to tell Mom, he didn't want to worry her. He would tell her he loved her. He would tell her he believed he would return to her and us kids. Then he would sign the letter, "Forever yours, Frank."
My thrice divorced aunt once said dad was the only man she knew who might just be faithful to his wife. And Dad was faithful to Mom, whom he adored. His fellow soldiers tried to entice him with invitations to burlesque shows. They tried to persuade him to have a couple flings "C'mon, Frank! You're thousands of miles from home. "No," he'd say. "I love my Dottie."
Dad returned home when the war suddenly ended. He did not come home a hero like his kid brother Joe, who as a dashing fighter pilot became an ace. We have a picture of handsome Joe in his leather bomber jacket and dashing cap, smiling at the camera. Joe came home, too. My grandmother wept tears of joy.
But while he never considered himself a hero, Dad's invention did save the lives of downed airmen and stranded soldiers. But Dad was a quiet man. He never even mentioned that.
This weekend, I've thought Uncle Joe and the older brother Jack, who wanted to serve but was too old to go. I've thought about my brother-in-law Leonard Bird, shot down at age twenty-five in Vietnam, leaving behind a grieving bride married all of six weeks. I've thought about my cousin, Ruth Voshell Stonesifer, whose son was downed in his helicopter in Afghanistan, his azure blue eyes closed forever. I've thought of the rows and rows of crosses and stars at cemeteries here and abroad. I've thought of those who have returned from war shattered in body and spirit. And I am moved to tears.
But most of all, I have been thinking of my quiet, self-effacing, and humble Dad. He loved his country. He served her with the skills he had. And he helped saved a few good men. Thank you, Dad.
Fay Voshell may be reached at email@example.com
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