My dad didn’t “do” war stories. He might tell you about the monkey they found in the jungle and adopted, naming it Charlie (I was probably in my 20s before I got that particular joke) and giving it beer, or the time he went to Japan on R and R. He’d tell you about boxing, maybe, and how he once went to fight wearing nothing but his helmet and his underwear when the siren went off in the middle of the night, but it was a funny story, not a “war” story.
But other than that, the only thing he would really say about being a paratrooper during the Vietnam War was that anyone who wasn’t scared the first time they jumped and wasn’t scared the last time they jumped was either crazy or a liar.
I didn’t find out that he had been a member of both the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Division until I was an adult, sharing a cup of coffee with him on a Christmas morning. He mentioned it briefly, and that morning marked the first time I really understood that this man, compact and gentle, sweet and reserved, had been in combat, that he had undoubtedly seen and done things that I would never be able to comprehend, that he had fought, had feared for his life, I’m sure, and seen good men die.
It was hard for me to reconcile the two. Dad and hero. Man who taught me to tie my shoes and man who jumped out of planes while people tried to shoot him out of the sky.
But Dad wasn’t welcomed as a hero when he came home. So, as a young man, angry, certainly, perhaps disillusioned, my father stood on Virginia Beach and began throwing his medals and ribbons into the Atlantic Ocean, flinging them far into the waves. And he came back to Missouri, where he saw a pretty girl with long black hair in a mini-skirt, her car broken down on the side of the road, and he stopped to help her, married her, and they had four children and lived a life.
Before my father died, he contacted the Veterans Administration and requested copies of all his service medals and ribbons—you can do that once, if you are a veteran. The package came several months after he died.
My dad had a lot of medals.
I was taking my dad to radiation one morning. It was cold, but bright—the way it gets, sometimes, in the mornings in Missouri during the middle of winter, the kind of morning where the air is sharp and clean and almost painful to breathe, and all the trees, bare of leaves, stand sharply limned against the rising sun, and the sky is all pink and orange and purple.
My dad, terminally ill, his strength fading, started to sing in my car.
“Good morning, America, how are you? Don’t you know me, I’m your native son,” he sang softly, and I struggled not to cry, because I knew he was simply appreciating the beauty of the morning even knowing his mornings were limited, and I didn’t want to ruin it for him with my tears.
My dad, native son that he was, died because of his service to his country, from a cancer directly related to his time in Vietnam. He was granted military honors at his funeral, and my brother-in-law, who is also a soldier, performed the flag-folding ceremony and presented my mother with the precisely folded triangle of cloth, a triangle of cloth that I swear to you must weigh a thousand pounds, saying, as he did so, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
And even as my heart literally felt like it was breaking—it was a physical pain in my chest, an ache, like my heart was a fist that had clenched too tight and cramped—I was reminded that my dad was a true patriot.
Memorial Day is devoted to patriots. Those of us who have never served can’t comprehend what service men and women have gone through, the bravery they exhibit, the type of courage and dedication and love of country it takes to sign a chunk of your life away, knowing you may not actually get that life back at all. So we fly our flags, instead, and bless the troops and maybe attend a ceremony, and tell people to remember that this particular day is not all about camping and barbecue.
My dad was a master at the barbecue.
With a can of Busch, a platter of meat and his old-school charcoal Weber, my dad was king of the universe. Do you barbecue well? My dad was better. He barbecued on Fridays. On long weekends. In the winter. And he certainly barbecued on Memorial Day. He loved to barbecue, to be surrounded by his family, to feed them and laugh and share fellowship around the grill.
So, my family barbecues on Memorial Day. If Dad was here, he’d be doing it, happily waving at neighbors doing the same. I honor my dad with hot dogs and hamburgers and by letting the grandchildren he never met run around barefoot in the yard dressed in red, white and blue, enjoying the day in a stereotypical, small-town America fashion. Maybe humming “Good morning, America, how are you?” under my breath as I bring my husband, another veteran, a can of beer as he barbecues. Yes, the day is about far more than barbecues. But it can include just that.
Because honoring isn’t always about grief. Sometimes it’s about celebration.