In the right drawer of my desk there is a picture of my dad in a US Army uniform. He’s about 30 years old in the picture and he is looking straight at the camera with a clear, steady, unflinching gaze. He reminds me of my youngest son. The same steady gaze, the same full lips; and, as Nathan humorously reminds me, the same hair pattern. "Thanks Grandad," Nathan smiles ruefully, rubbing his balding head.
The year the picture of Dad was taken was 1944, the year of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last chance to push back the Allies and to obtain a negotiated peace. Americans sustained seventy-five thousand casualties.
The Germans fared worse.
Innocently enough, my dad had kept ahead of the draft because of the number of children he had. But at last even my folks’ dedication to the Genesis mandate to replenish the earth was not enough to keep the Army at bay.
But Dad wasn’t drafted as an Army regular. In fact, he wasn’t drafted at all. He was tapped as a civilian advisor. Plucked from his job at All American Engineering, he was to head to England to coach Royal Air Force and American pilots on how to employ an invention he had helped develop. It was designed to pick up soldiers stranded behind enemy lines.
Dad had wanted a way to serve his country, and he was determined to go, despite leaving his pregnant wife and four kids behind. He knew, Mom was later to tell me, that he might not come back, but his love for his country drove him on. My father, a man of few words, would not often speak about his stay in London. But for the rest of his life, the sound of warning sirens would make him turn white.
As fate would have it, the plane that was to bear him East to England burst into flames on the runway at Newfoundland. Everyone got out safely, slightly singed but none the worse except for some smoke inhalation. But the plane burned up along with all its contents, including Dad’s uniform, which was that of an Army Captain. Back to New York for another flight and another uniform; then off to England, this time safely.
Once in England, Dad faced the last gasp effort of the German Wehrmacht to destroy London. Germany’s silent and deadly V-2 rockets smashed into the city day after day and night after night. In some ways, he was later to say, the V-2 rockets were worse than the bombs of the initial blitz, because of the silence; the dreadful silence. You could be standing in the street and hear absolutely nothing, know nothing, suspect nothing until you felt the earth shudder and saw plumes of dirt and rubble rise and fall like reversed waterfalls in the dank, dusty air.
In spite of the fear, the risk of death and not knowing when the war would ever end, Dad never forgot to write a daily letter to Mom. They were always brief and to the point, Mom remembers. Dad was a man of few words; and, as he was later to tell Mom, he didn’t want to worry her. He would tell her he loved her. He would tell her he believed he would return to her and us kids. Then he would sign the letter, "Forever yours, Frank."
And he was forever Mom's faithful and true love. His fellow soldiers attempts to get Dad some romance on the side fell flat. You're in England, three thousand miles away, they would say. "I love Dottie," he would say. My thrice married Aunt Ruth would later say, "Frank is the only man I know who actually would stay faithful to his wife."
Dad returned within four months when the war suddenly ended. He did not come home a hero like his kid brother Joe, who as a dashing pilot, became an Ace. We have a picture of handsome Joe in his leather bomber jacket and rakishly dashing cap, smiling at the camera. Thankfully, Joe came home, too. My grandmother wept tears of joy.
But while he never considered himself a hero, Dad’s invention did save the lives of downed airmen and stranded soldiers. But Dad, being a quiet man, never even mentioned that.
This weekend, I’ve thought Uncle Joe's and Dad's older brother Jack, who wanted to serve but was too advanced in years at age 38 to go. I’ve thought about my brother-in-law Leonard Bird, shot down in his jet at age twenty-five in Vietnam, leaving behind a grieving bride married all of six weeks. I’ve thought about my cousin Ruth Stonesifer’s son, downed in his helicopter in Afghanistan, his blue eyes closed forever.
I’ve thought of the rows and rows of crosses and stars at cemeteries here and abroad.
But most of all, I have been thinking of my quiet, self-effacing and humble Dad. He loved his country. He served her with the skills he had. And he helped saved a few good men.
Thank you, Dad.