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Veteran’s Day without that veteran dad - Albia Newspapers: Opinion

Veteran’s Day without that veteran dad

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Posted: Friday, November 10, 2017 9:09 am

This is the first Veteran’s Day I will observe in my 63 years without my WWII veteran father either by my side or a phone call away. My earliest memories as a little kid weren’t a grand birthday present or a beautiful Christmas tree, or even words spoken to me by my mother. It was of my dad, standing beneath a huge old cedar tree in the Montour Cemetery, blowing taps on Memorial Day.

Patriotism was never rammed down our throats. It was just always there. There were some things we never spoke of, like the hurt my uncle (my dad’s older brother) suffered at being declared 4F and staying home to farm instead of serve. And my Grandfather Paxton never served in WWI, even though his future brothers-in-law, the Vana clan, sent four brothers back to Europe after immigrating at the turn of the century, to fight in the Great War. To this day, I can only guess because he was orphaned as a young teen and was needed at home to look after younger siblings.

The more my great-uncles drank and shouted at each other over a card table, the more the conversation turned to WWI and the quieter my Grandfather Paxton became.

My father didn’t like to talk about his service aboard a minesweeper in the South Pacific late in the war. But he directed us to his first cousin, Fred, a childhood best friend, basketball and baseball teammate who was wounded and captured in the Battle of the Bulge and died shortly after he came home, while Dad was in the South Pacific.

I grew up around his farmer friends, most of whom served in WWII and few if any were willing to talk about the war except an occasional joke about boot camp, or Army food or seasickness. Chuck Linville was a Marine survivor of Iwo Jima. Howard Bro was an officer in Australia. Howard Rosfjord was an Army lieutenant in Germany. Bud McCoy stayed stateside.

They were far too busy raising kids and eeking out a living on their farms to spend a whole lot of time talking about war. But there were men my dad and his friends looked after. Drunks and fighters mostly, that I learned much later left their souls overseas.

I was little and didn’t really understand about Vietnam until our boyhood champion, Bruce McCoy, joined the Navy, wound up on a Swift Boat on the Mekong River and returned with a purple heart. I learned about the fervency of prayer through my mother and the women of tiny Montour Methodist Church as they surrounded Bruce’s mother, Dolly, with love and support.

And there was Dave Hindgartner who came home after his tour of duty in the Navy, flying support missions into Vietnam. He regaled us with water skiing stories from his time in Honolulu.

None of the veterans I knew growing up were perfect. Some were difficult to work for as we hired out to bale hay or work cattle and hogs. But they were also our 4-H leaders and Little League coaches and you gained a firm respect and appreciation for what they did.

As I grew older with my father and honed my interview skills in the newspaper business, I was able to pry out of him little by little his WWII experience. In his mind, he was never in danger (even though his ship was clearing mines across the South Pacific prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb and almost a year after the surrender of Japan, working mine fields in and around China and Korea). But I learned of his boot camp experience, his radioman training, an illness that almost mustered him out of the Navy, a month of riding a typhoon back to Pearl Harbor.

I found photographs he had taken of post atomic bomb Nagasaki and was able to ask him specifically about historic photographs and about his Navy buddies with him in the photos. I discovered, clearing out my grandparent’s farm home, a packet of letters home that were mostly censored as the U.S. armada approached Japan to end the war and as his ship found itself in China as the Communist revolution began to unfold.

Always there was respect to be learned and practiced, even when he turned against the Vietnam War as my brother and I reached draft age. He grew to hate the top brass and politicians who were prosecuting the war, always supporting the guys on the ground. He didn’t trust officers much at the end of WWII and he sure didn’t trust top brass in Vietnam. I found out very late in his life that he had been encouraged to remain in the Navy and go to officer’s training school. “I thanked them,” he told me. “And then I got my duffle bag as soon as I could and hopped a train from San Francisco to Minneapolis and a bus from Minneapolis to Marshalltown and hitch-hiked 14 miles home.”

He is gone now, but his stories (even in muted form) remain, as do my own memories of his bugle blowing for the American Legion, of his opening his cousin Fred’s foot locker and letting my brother and me see his uniforms and touch his Purple Heart.

You don’t have to remind me to stand for the National Anthem or place my hand over my heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. You don’t have to remind me what to say or not to say to a veteran. “Thank you for your service” is about all any veteran hopes to hear.

One of the few times my dad voiced displeasure over Vietnam vets came after watching a television news interview of a very long-haired vet, wearing an Army jacket with an American flag headband, complaining that no one ever threw them a parade when they came home. My dad got home in July of 1946 and couldn’t get into Iowa State University because all the slots were filled.

“I never got a parade either,” he said. “He needs to get a hair cut and find a job.”

He wasn’t being judgmental or mean spirited or unsympathetic. He was stating his creed and I heard it any number of times in different forms. “Stop whining and do your homework.” “So what if your coach is unfair. Practice harder.” “You think I like the smell of pigs. Get out of bed and do your chores.”

One final thought. He got to see his flag at the Welcome Home Soldier Monument a year before he died. It was actually the parade and the thanks he never got when he returned home in 1946.

He got teary. We all did.

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