Long Overdue: Thanks, Dad

It is Memorial Day here in the United States and this is the day we honor our military veterans who have died in service, as well as those who have served and are currently serving. While we set this one day aside to honor our men and women, I grew up with men who served in World War II, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. This story is about my father, who was a Marine serving in the Philippines and taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. Both my brothers were Marines, as is my Cousin, Frank. My Uncle Pete and my Uncle George also served during World War II.

My parents divorced when I was six years old. I remember being called to say goodbye to him as he moved out of the house. I was upstairs vacuuming the bedroom I shared with my older sister. My first thought was relief, “Well, they won’t fight any more.” All four kids lined up. We stood outside, in front of his car. He had one finger holding a hanger – maybe a suit or jacket on it, which was tossed over his shoulder. That’s all I remember of that scene.

I remember being a very small little girl and standing on the palms of his hands – hands outstretched to keep my balance and that marvelous grin of his and the glint of laughter and pride in his blue eyes.

With the divorce came weekend visits or being taken out to dinner on our birthdays on a one on one basis. He had a habit of emptying his pockets every night he came home, tossing his change into a jar or a tray, what have you. All year long that change grew and grew and at Christmas time, each child got $50.00 because of that collection of change. Years into this wonderful tradition, he decided to change it up a bit by getting us gifts instead. (We were appalled – we’d already planned on how we were going to spend our $50.00). I was somewhere around 17 or 18, a late developer who had finally bloomed and bloomed well. My father passed me the large gift-wrapped box and took a sip of his Johnny Walker Black Label scotch, watching me finally opening a box instead of an envelope. I lifted the lid, ripped the seal holding the tissue paper and my fingers touched a soft, glossy feeling fabric while my eyes took in the colors and my pupils retracted in self-defense. I lifted out the garment – it had every color in the rainbow – a halter dress to wear over the accompanying two piece bathing suit that matched perfectly. The size of the bathing suit was clearly for someone who was reaching for age 11, but still hovering around 10 years old. While the fabric was stretchy, clearly it would snap if asked to be worn. The halter dress would fit – but the effect might not have been what my father intended. There was a pause, while we both took in the details. At last, my father cleared his throat. “I may have bought that after a liquid lunch… It’s bright, isn’t it?” Liquid? This would have caught the attention of a heroine addict in full thrall. I held the bathing suit up to my chest. My father blinked, “Okay, I may have described you as a little, petite thing.” Ummm. Mind, I wore that halter dress one night, folk-dancing. During a memorable Greek or Israeli line dance, jumping and kicking with my arms resting on the shoulders of the people on either side of me, I felt a breeze and glanced down to see I had come completely out of the top of the dress… Well, it sure did stretch one more time as I kept dancing and pulled it back up and me back inside!

Being the youngest child of two boys and two girls, in that order, I was the least known quantity of the ducklings and I was an odd duckling. My father was a distant God.  He had a rule that you  never dropped by.  You always called first and he would hand you a dime to call him if you forgot, closing the door and telling you to go down the street to the payphone and use it.  The nice thing about being the fourth child is I got to learn by watching the others.  That dime thing happened to my second eldest brother, who was the spitting image of my father, as his second son is the spitting image of him – it is eerie to look at photographs because you can only tell due to black and white vs. color and time period of clothing and company.

To his friends, clients and family, my father was a marvelous storyteller with that magical gift Irishmen have to tell tall tales, as well as some instructive narratives to his children.  He had been a highly decorated Marine in WWII and a prisoner of war of the Japanese, taken in the Philippines.  He went in at 6’1, 165 lbs and came out 6 feet, 95 lbs.  Afterwards, he never went anywhere for years without a locker of food with him at all times.  It wasn’t that he was silent about his experiences during the War, but he would tell the stories of horror with a little bit of humor thrown in, almost a deflective style so he would not hear pity or rage from the listener.   He came home with a passion for rice and a couple of recipes that we make to this day.  Family history records the day my mother ran out of soy sauce and the words that ensued for that unforgivable error.  She promptly spent a large portion of the weekly household budget buying a case of soy sauce so that argument would never happen again…  Both my mother and my father loved to read.  They were famous for sitting on the couch at either end, reading the latest hardcover.  One had the book and tore out the pages to pass to the other so that they could both read it at the same time.  We caught the love of reading from them both.

While he was charming, he could be a very harsh man in his judgment.  It is very hard to live up to a legend who survived being a POW and became a successful businessman.  He was not a demonstrative man, neither in hugs nor loving words.  It was hard for him as his own father had been harsh and one of the reasons why he joined the Marine Corps and lied about his age to do so.

I have these flashback memories, some flattering of him, and some not.  He was underground in a coal mine when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  I was later to tour the facility at Hanford, where the Nagasaki bomb was built and my realization, as I stood in those rooms, frozen in time, and realized their extraordinary effort brought my father home at long last.  He would try to pass on his wisdom.  He said that the book, King Rat, by James Clavell, was the closest to his experience as had been written up to that time.

In trying to impress upon me the necessity to never give up hope, he spoke of the rail cars that would come thundering down the mine shafts – the ends hooked together. smashing and bouncing off one another as they hurtled down to be filled by the POWs digging coal. As I recall, anyone hospitalized got a second helping of rice and the POWs were not fed much to begin with. My father said that when a man got to the end of his endurance and couldn’t take it any longer, word would pass through the men in the coal mine that this was the day and to get ready for it. It was the act of the man inserting his foot between the coal cars as they came down and crashed together. The timing was tricky, too much and the man would lose his foot. That is what happened to this man that day. My father paused, shook his head slowly and looked me in the eye. “Two days later, the war was over. That soldier went home without a foot. Never give up hope, kid.”

They found out the war was over because the day Nagasaki was bombed, no guards came back for them. Think of that. That day that began as every other day had begun ended in freedom for some and death for others. I remember him telling about the air drop of food supplies to the POWs while they awaited liberation and transport. Huge, heavy bags filled with various food stuffs would be dropped from a plane. All the POWs would spread out, calling “Mine!” “I got it!” as those fast falling bags would tumble out of the belly of the plane and plummet downwards towards men who more closely resembled scarecrows than men. He admitted they lost quite a few POWs in the beginning, because in their eagerness, they would misjudge the trajectory and get squashed by a bag of Hershey bars or K rations.

My father died at age 58 from the worst form of lung cancer. He was an amazing man, at one and the same time a contradictory human being and a giant in spirt, whom I appreciate more every day. He used to say when we would argue, “Hey, kid, we’ll talk about this again when you’re my age and see what you think then.” I am now his age.

Pause. I had a question and went online to get an answer; then decided to just google my father’s name. I’ve spent several hours reading about the camp he was held at, testimony given by others about their treatment. To see his name listed is both a confirmation and gut-wrenching. The statistics on survivors of Nazi POW camps is significantly higher than those of the Japanese POW camps. And, all the survivors are dying now, faster and faster as time passes.

Thank you, Dad, Uncle Pete, Uncle George, my brother Patrick James, my brother, Sean Edward, and my cousin, Frank, Retired, still serving in Afghanistan. May God bless you and keep you. Thank you.

42 thoughts on “Long Overdue: Thanks, Dad

  1. Compelling and intense true story of your Dad! Beautifully written with unflinching truth from the eyes of a child now blossomed. The life force he held in his frame and his soul is nothing short of miraculous. You, my friend, possess that quality. Thank you for the glimpse into your family. And thank you to the long line of Veterans in your kin.

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    • Thank you, Maureen. His nickname for me was “Concertina.” A form of barb wire that has barbs in both directions. “She gets you coming and going.” Grin. Hope so.

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  2. It was nice to read about your dad P.
    Those wars are falling further and further behind us. A whole generation of kids are walking the earth and they had no contact with anybody that was there.
    So it goes. Time moves inexorably on…

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  3. That generation is so much Larger Than Life. I don’t know if I could do what they did to survive. I hope I never have to find out. He loved you greatly to remember his change every single day for Christmas. I love stories like that the best, it shows daily faithfulness that is greater then any flashy one time gift.

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  4. I remember meeting your dad on one occasion. He struck me as strong and that he had no tolerance for nonsense. It’s strange and wonderful that as we grow older we’re more able to wrap around our parents’ wisdom.

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  5. Hunt, I broke down, I am so so glad you had what time with your Dad as you did. In that brief period you captured so much life,love, strength and character from him. You will have stories to share, and have such vivid memories of him. Even in divorce he didn’t lessen in your eyes, and that I will give credit to your Mom. These same stories show how you cherish your memories. I know it pained you to write this post becasue it only reminded you how much you missed him. My dad has been gone over 10 years, and I still have a hard time remembering really positive things about him. That is truly a shame on me, and him. Thank you for sharing this, and the heartache that came with the writing of this post. Take care, Bill

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    • You broke down, Bill? Small hand reaches out to pat your arm. Both Mom and Dad held to a rule that they never put the other one down in front of or to the kids (at least until we came of age… Smile – they were human, too.)

      Like mothers and daughters, the relationship between father and son can bring great love and sometimes greater disappointment and it can take years to reconcile whether alive or not.

      I remember my brother – the one with the dime – his voice catching in his throat – telling a story of a phone call he had with Dad. Right before the call ended, Dad said, “I love you.” Sean turned to Dad’s partner who was in the office with him. He was thunderstruck. “He said he loved me.” Such is the power of fathers.

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      • Hunt, I just read it again, and I cried just like I did the 1st time. Your Dad was amazing. And he made the most out of a life that just didn’t play fair with him. You have every right to be proud of him, I am proud of him and I never had the opportunity to meet him. Please take care, Bill

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  6. Pingback: Memorial Day: Memories and a heartfelt Thank You to all of Servicemen and women | Chasing Rabbit Holes

  7. And of course, I sat here and put my head in my hands and wept. My father would have been 94. His generation is passing fast from us and along with them, their stories, their devotion, their faults and their heroisms. I find it so very touching about that dress. I think it was at that point I began to cry. Such devotion from you and I am sure, he knows of it and looks at his dear Huntie with love and pride. you are a prime storyteller and I think he is proud of that and amazed. Our veterans give us everything. The very least we can do is give them our thanks. And I thank you for this post. Oh Huntie, bless your heart.

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    • Kanzen, I will reblog the story from Father’s Day – that one will make you laugh and laugh. Promise. He was a paradox of a man. My brother said at his funeral that while he was a tough man, if he was caught off guard with a flash on TV of a child in braces, he would begin to cry. Could not stand the idea of a child in such circumstances. In his honor, a Marine Corps Scholarship was set up for the children of Marines who died in service – and it is still ongoing today…. It was a proud moment to see the kids who received it recently…. Thanks, Dad and thanks to your friends who honored your memory.

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  8. A loving tribute, Huntie.
    All our memories and stories, big and small paint an emotional picture, a real human being. I feel your love for this man who was your father, whether he made mistakes now and again. After all, we are all human. When I think of the men who were captured during WWII, I break down because this is not something one wants to think about. How these men survived, how did they live the impossible and not break?
    Though your parents divorced, it warms my heart you still had your father in your life and remember him still, with love. ❤

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    • I think I was very blessed, Tess. We never had expectations that our mother or father should be perfect human beings. They were who they were and did the best they were capable of – nobody made excuses. You just dealt with the cards you were given to the best of your ability.

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  9. Your writing is captivating, so personal. It’s possible your father loaded coal next to a grand uncle of mine. I can identify with your story from my own family perspective. I also understand how one can become too difficult to live with because of their experience. It’s a testament to your father’s great character that he stayed in your life, even from a safer distance. Those demons can harm more than the soul they inhabit. As you know, I wanted to share a Liebster Award with you. This beautiful and moving story is the example of how I’m touched by your writing and wanted somehow to share this small recognition that seems to spread like wildfire connecting people in a genealogy of bloggers with so many branches it rivals the largest of trees in the most spectacular of forests. I am including the link so others can learn about this award and see your nomination. Thank you for sharing this! (and it doesn’t come with a suspense 🙂

    http://dwhinson56.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/leaping-liebsters/

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    • Daniel, high praise indeed. Thank you. I must clear up a misapprehension here – my mother would be the first to say she was equally, perhaps more so, responsible for their divorce. She was an alcoholic and addicted to Codeine contained in cough syrup. When they divorced, she joined AA (33 years) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). Years and years later, she was sitting in an AA meeting and heard stories about my father being in jail for drinking, as well. And, of course, the stories were wild and flattering… It is fashionable these days to sugarcoat and paint a picture of the perfect man or woman. What I love and honor about my parents is they were not perfect and still gave the best they were capable of.

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      • You’ve said it all. They were human and we carry with us all that they were in those memories. Sometimes its the events we feel were our worst moments that give us the strength to find our way to something much better. Thank you for sharing that and giving me a better understanding of this memory.

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