On December 7, 1941, my father was 16 years old. His life would change forever on that day. Shortly after President Roosevelt told the nation about the “day that shall live in infamy,” my father entered the Navy. He fought on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, but don’t ask him about it. Even 60 years later he cannot tell his stories. He is a great storyteller, unless the stories are about war. The few times I have seen him try, he has broken down in tears. These are the only times I have seen my father cry.
I was born in a Naval hospital in Bremerton, Washington in 1962, and I spent my first six years in San Diego, where my father taught teletype repair at the Naval school. (Nowadays, he works on computers.) My earliest memories often involve events on the Naval Base, where I could visit my father at work.
Perhaps the most poignant memory of my early childhood, however, involves me and my mother standing at a bus stop in Wisconsin, waiting for my father. He had been gone for a very long time on a cruise around the world. When he left, he charged my mother with moving the family from San Diego to wherever she wanted. He was retiring from the Navy with his pension, and they had decided that California was definitely not the place for our family. She didn’t know where to go, other than to find his brother, who would offer our family of four children a place to stay. If I recall correctly, we stayed in a camper trailer on my uncle’s front lawn and waited for my father. My uncle lived on a farm just outside of Osseo, Wisconsin.
After weeks of this, my father was finally coming home. So were many other servicemen. As each one stepped onto the pavement from the bus, I asked my mother, “Is that him? Is that him?” A few times, I thought that she was mistaken, but I wasn’t sure. I really didn’t remember what he looked like. When he finally came off the bus, I had tired of asking my mother, and she needed to prompt me. I ran to him and received one of those enormous hugs that only a father can give.
My father was not the stereotypical military father. He was not particularly strict, though he did have a strong sense of discipline. He also knew right from wrong, and made of point of teaching that distinction. As you might imagine, he was fiercely patriotic, and a good deal of that has rubbed off.
Every year on December 7, my parents would remind me of Pearl Harbor Day, in the same way that I will always tell my children about 9/11. I didn’t know many of the details — still don’t, as learning about war does not interest me — but I knew that this day was important to them. It was one of the few truly religious holidays in my home. They told me about listening to President Roosevelt on the radio. They told me about being scared. Of course, they both felt fear more personally after my father entered the service, but there must be something quite indelible about one’s first encounter with war.
I am not sure about my parent’s being “The Greatest Generation,” but there is something about them that I have not been able to replicate in my own character. It’s hard to describe with a single word, like honor or dignity, but I connect this feeling about them to December 7. Perhaps this “something” is their sense of satisfaction at having participated in something that changed the world. They are not ambitious. They have lived good lives. Whatever that indefinable something is, I am grateful for parents who have it, and I am grateful for December 7, when I can be reminded of the feeling.
[Cross-posted at Venturpreneur]