So, What is it Dad?

Posted: May 31, 2010 in Personal Growth

I will not make this a negative criticism of my Dad. I refuse to denigrate him for anything he did or did not do. I am convinced he did the best he could; and I love him forever for it. This is only a snapshot of the character I knew from short visits. I don’t remember anything about what it was like to live with him except for the few years he opened up his home to me my first year of college. He quietly suffered indignities and rarely made any comments; and never complained to me. I doubt if there was anyone who he could open up to about the issues that gave him stomach ulcers. I can remember his saying that “it’s not what you eat but what’s eating you” about his ulcers.

So, it is with this background I want to provide a perspective to an incident that happened one of the last times I visited with him before he died. We were sitting and talking about a variety of subjects, most of which I can’t remember. One, however, I think was about marriage. As I often do I wanted to use a scene in a movie to illustrate an idea I was advancing. I mentioned the movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. I made the mistake of misstating that it was about returning war heroes… Dad exploded with words like “oh, that’s a bunch of bull-shit!” I was so stunned that I couldn’t say another thing for a long time. I just sat in silence staring at him while he talked about stuff I can’t remember at all. Maybe if I had listened I would have had a better understanding of why he blew up like that. But I didn’t. A couple of days later I told him how hurt I was when he reacted as he did when I was talking to him. He apologized saying it was because of something that had happened to him as a boy. The event he described was so far removed from the subject he blew up about I didn’t believe it for a minute. I didn’t respond, however. I wasn’t very good at responding to things my dad said. I think I could debate him a lot better now that I’ve gained a lot of information about things he spoke about.

I wondered, over the years, if his reaction was because he didn’t go to war while people he knew about did. I can imagine people either making comments to him or he imagined peoples’ attitudes about him because he didn’t go to war. He was actually in the Marine Corps reserves leading up to the war[1] and he got out because he was employed in an essential industry: the railroad. He mentioned that his brothers got out of the draft because they worked in essential industry: the dry cleaning business. I didn’t react to that at all; but I have long since wondered how the dry cleaning industry could have been considered essential industry when men who were in the apprentice program at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry-dock Company were drafted into the military in WWII. Maybe it depended on where you were at the time; but it does seem a little inconsistent.

There is a syndrome that many soldiers who survive combat fall under called survivor’s guilt. It happened to people who can’t understand why their friends got killed and they didn’t. They often feel that they would gladly trade places with the dead. I can’t help but wonder if my dad felt a certain amount of that in the years that followed the war, and that is why he had such a reaction to the subject of returning war heroes.

[1] He took his uniform and had it cut down to fit me when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I think I still have a picture of me in it. As I grew older I was so proud of his being in the Marine Corps. His not going to war didn’t mean anything to me.


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