One awful day in 2000, I visited my father in a hospital room. I was back in my hometown to see him when I got the awful news; he was terminal. His body was full of cancer, and as I walked into the room and sat down, he said something that stuck with me and likely will until I myself pass.
“I should have bought it on a beach 45 years ago, so be it.”
He died a few months later. The beach he was referring to was a beach at Normandy, where he landed as part of the allied forces on June 6, 1944. He was in the signal corps, and he was there as part of a team to begin reinstating communications, which in those days meant telephone and telegraph.
He and his comrades went in fairly late the first day, but at that point, nothing was decided and he was under heavy fire. He saw several days of combat. I cannot imagine what he witnessed.
He survived World War II but it was smoking that eventually brought him down, and the irony here is he didn’t smoke until he joined the army. One of the stories he told was how he got asked very early on by a supply clerk not if he smoked, but WHAT he smoked. He said he didn’t smoke, and the supply guy said “pal, you’re going to smoke, trust me.” So he went with the first brand that popped in his head, Lucky Strikes. So is the power of advertising. I never knew him to smoke Luckies, he was a Marlboro man, then a More smoker, those brown ones that looked like skinny cigars. It gave him the cancer that killed him right before his 76th birthday.
He also became an alcoholic soon after returning home from the war. His father was an alcoholic, but fortunately for us, he was a happy drunk, not a mean-spirited drunk like his father. I think his quirky sense of humor and love of laughing helped a lot here, but he also loved his family, so even drunk, he was never mean.
On New Year’s Eve 1976, an odd holiday to stop drinking, he quit cold turkey. I remember my mother, who hated that he drank, saying “I hope you’re serious about quitting.” He was.
He never talked about the war while he was an active alcoholic, and the genetics of addiction aside, I think this is a sign that the war was at least part of the reason for his turn to alcohol. After he stopped drinking, the stories started.
They included a lesson on racism, how he hung out with Black truck drivers and the white Southerners mocked him for it, but he told me that their pettiness made them miss out (truck drivers could get their hands on all sorts of goodies). Some were funny, like he and his American colleagues who were not up on Brit slang being shocked at the British officer who asked them when they were bunking in an English ballroom upon arrival what time they wanted to be “knocked up the next morning” (awakened).
Some were harrowing, like his D-Day stories. He also told a fascinating story about being up a pole soon after D-Day stringing wire and seeing German divisions moving up a valley as the Battle of the Bulge was beginning. The crazy part of the story was his commanders didn’t believe him when he radioed it in because they couldn’t imagine the Germans mustering up that much of a force. Another story he told from that battle was seeing German prisoners and getting very angry to see it included old men who were forced to fight.
My father, in many ways, was not what you might expect a World War II vet to be. My father’s views were often surprising for a man his age. While his age peers were attacking rock music in the 60s, he was enjoying it (he LOVED Creedence Clearwater Revival). He was also at odds with his comrades over Vietnam, and would watch protests at our neighborhood park. He believed that the Vietnam War was wrong, and not at all like the war he fought.
He loved his country, despite what it meant for him as a Native man (he was a big supporter of the American Indian Movement). He openly mocked Nixon and Reagan, yet always had a flag flying in front of the house and retired it when it became tattered, the proper way, by burning. He fought in one of the nastiest battles in world history with pride as a member of the United States Army, and attended war protests.
He loved U2, Tom T. Hall, CCR, Loretta Lynn, Duke Ellington, REM, Cab Calloway, Anita Baker, and just about any music that was well-done. His favorite was Johnny Cash, and he could do a dead-on impersonation of him (he was gifted with a wonderful singing voice). I think he loved Johnny Cash so much because of Cash’s wallowing in the power of contradictions, of loving the dark and the light, tradition and progress, innocence and guilt, and how all of that makes us human beings.
I am glad he is not here to see what is going on right now in America. It would make him sick, but in some ways, it wouldn’t surprise him. He knew the nation’s potential but he knew nothing was guaranteed. That’s how he raised me to view America.
The last word goes to Johnny Cash, and one of my father’s favorite songs, which I believe he related to on several levels.