My mother was the Activities Director at a nursing home. I always teased her that she played with old people all day and as she loved her job, that was more than just a little true. She would organize quilting bees, card games, movie nights etc. She also coordinated outside groups coming in to do things for the patients. Things like church choirs coming in to sing or civic groups bringing over food or other gifts. One thing frustrated her and she was very intense about this. If you wanted to help out the residents of the nursing home do so at any time other than a Holiday. Everyone showed up at Christmas, or Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. No one showed up there the rest of the year.
I tell you that because I was going to write this for Memorial Day but I thought of my mother and decided I would wait until it had passed because, while this message is relevant to Memorial Day, it is better if it is considered on any other day. Especially Election Day.
I may have been a mistake. When I was born my mother was 40 and my father was 43 years of age. While I could have been a mistake, I don’t think I was. My parents adored children and, while it’s hard for me to believe that I was a blessing, to them in 1958, I probably was. My parents were what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” Steeled by the Depression, Honed by World War 2, educated by the GI Bill, there will probably not be a generation so motivated to success, so self aware and so smart. With time comes perspective. Brokaw was right in my experience.
Memorial Day this year brought back memories of those in my family who served in the military. I would like to say I come from a family of warriors, but my family would have laughed at that idea. Military service of the WW2 generation was nothing to brag about. It was what you had to do and as soon as it was over, if you were still alive, you went home and restarted your life.
There was my Uncle Alvin. He had his picture of himself in the navy looking quite dashing on a side table in his living room Out of 10 or so family members in that war he was the only one with any photo or memorabilia displayed. I think it was there because my Aunt liked it. There was my uncle Ralph. He had been in the army and served in Africa and in Italy. He had a busted eardrum from the war and got a small pension. He never spoke of the war to my recollection. What I know of him came from his sister, my mother. I once asked another of her brothers, my uncle Elton, about his service. He told me he had been in the army as a truck driver in Kentucky. I ask him if he carried a gun. He said while laughing that there was a .45 pistol in the glove box of the truck. My surmise was the .45 was probably there in case some highwayman came along. There wasn’t much threat of the Japanese or the Germans invading Kentucky anytime soon.
My father was always a humorist. Even his military service was the foil for his stories. He spent most of the War at a Army Air Corps. base in Dodge City, Kansas where big bombers were based. He was essentially a Radar O’Reilly for a General there and did he have some tales! There was the time he hitched a ride in a B 26 to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play in the World Series. The game was rained out. There was the time he went pheasant hunting in rural Kansas where the sport was in shooting the bird after it had begun its ascent with a .22 rifle. That can’t be easy. And there was the time when the war was over when his General, not knowing that my father had already gotten his paperwork approved to be mustered out told him that he had gotten a big job in the Pentagon and he was taking my father with him. My father said great. Looking forward to it. Whereupon he went and picked up his separation orders and took the first train, literally, out of Dodge for Alabama. He was terrified that his General had enough clout to keep him in the Army and wanted to get as far away as he could.
His favorite story was how he got drafted out of the Army into the Army Air Corps. My father enlisted as many did after Pearl Harbor. It seemed that everyone knew they needed to go. It was strange though, because my father was blind in his right eye from a baseball injury. Imagine the army taking a half blind guy today. In 1941 that just wasn’t a problem. He went through basic training and amazingly qualified as a “sharpshooter” for his skill with an M1 Carbine. Remember, he was right handed, but had to shoot left handed as he was blind in his right eye. I ask him if he ever shot a Thompson sub machine gun like Vic Morrow used in my favorite TV show “Combat”. He said,”yea and I scared every buzzard in the sky”. He was always funny.
After basic training he went to Macon, Georgia for signal Corp. training as he was going to be a radio operator. Early on he got a letter from home. It told him his draft notice had arrived. The government wasn’t quite as efficient then as it is now. After some phone calls around he went from being in the Army to being in the Army Air Corps (the predecessor for our modern day Air Force) and he ended up on a train to Denver for training to be a clerk in the Army Air Corps. I asked him if he was upset about that. He shook his head and said,”buddy, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. All the boys in my unit in Macon were killed at Anzio.”” At that time the seriousness of war and of my father’s service hit me. If not for some administrative snafu, I probably wouldn’t be here. Wow!
My father was from a small town in Northwest Alabama. I grew up in a small town in East Alabama where my mother had grown up and her family resided. We visited the little town of my father’s youth to see family frequently. At some point I asked my mother why we never went downtown in that town. My mother told me that my father didn’t like to go downtown because it brought back memories of his two best friends which were killed in the war. I knew that story. My father’s two best friends from childhood served together in the army. One night during the Battle of the Bulge when they were sleeping, a German with a submachine gun snuck in and began firing killing many unaware soldiers as they lay there before someone was able to shoot him. Another soldier in the unit wrote my father telling him what happened. In those days soldiers carried the addresses of people in their units that others in their units wanted to be notified if anything happened to them. No email, no Twitter, no Facebook. You relied on your comrade to deliver bad news if it happened. Their deaths caused my dad to not want to visit the old haunts of his youth.
My parents had been married several years prior to the beginning of WW2. After my father had passed on, I was visiting my mother during the mobilization of troops in the first Iraq War. We were watching the news one afternoon when a story came on about a nearby National Guard Unit mobilizing to go to the Gulf. It showed young men with dufflebags and packs waiting to board buses. I heard something and turned to look at my mother. She was crying. I said, “What’s wrong mama?” She said “You don’t know how hard it is watching your men go off to war.”
That was a moment in my life I won’t forget. The sight of that mobilization brought back memories of my mother watching my father and her brothers leave for the war. I had no idea what to say to my mother. What can anyone say? Watching a loved one leave and knowing there is a chance they won’t come back has to be devastating. And if they came back, would their lives ever be the same?
Sometime in the early 1990s, I was flying back from the West Coast to Washington, DC where I lived at the time. A very spry octogenarian and his wife sat next to me. I chatted amicably with the gentleman, who turned out to be a former head of Neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine. At one time I mentioned that his field was much different with medicines such as Prozac available now. He told me the story of how after WW2 he had performed over 200 lobotomies on returning soldiers. I was stunned. He looked at me and said, “there was no other treatment; it was all we had”. Incredible! They didn’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder then but that’s what it was that he had to treat with surgery to try and provide some relief from the horrors of war to those poor returning soldiers.
And so on this Memorial Day I vowed that I would make my electoral choice for President of the United States this way. Which candidate will understand that war is a tragedy which can make a man not want to see his hometown again because of the memories of his fallen comrades. Which candidate will understand that the families of those that go to war suffer horribly from seeing their loved ones go to war, not knowing if they will return? Those terrible memories will last a lifetime. And which candidate will demand that soldiers returning from war be treated humanely and provided the BEST medical care as befits a hero? Shouldn’t those three questions be absolute requirements for any President? And shouldn’t we, the citizenry, demand answers to those three questions every day; not just Memorial Day? And wouldn’t true Patriots demand those answers especially on Election Day?