This weekend, amid the smells of barbecues and fresh flowers at gravesites, and the sounds of children playing and new flags snapping in the breeze, my thoughts have been with two men for whom Memorial Day holds other meaning: my father and father-in-law.
My dad was a Depression-era child who came of military age as tension mounted in Korea and would have missed war entirely had he gone to college instead of the Navy after high school. So when most of the young men he knew in school were just learning to shave, he was learning how to keep his clothes dry while bunking on the damp anchor-chain deck aboard an aircraft carrier plying the Pacific.
He chose the military because he had no money for college. And he opted for the Navy because a favorite uncle served in that branch. The same uncle had jumped off a sinking carrier into burning oil during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, and my dad remembered seeing the scars across his arms and back from that and thought of him as a true hero.
My dad did nothing so risky during his service, but his contribution was no less important. He parlayed an interest in photography into a post with Naval intelligence, helping to map out battle plans. He served on two carriers during a duty spanning the end of the Korean conflict and the return to peacetime. Although he never picked up a gun, his work in the dark recesses of the carriers disseminating classified information was weapon enough. Even now, more than 60 years later, he refuses to discuss what he worked on down there.
My father-in-law, Gene, on the other hand took his life into his hands nearly each day he set out from port. A dozen years older than my dad, he was among what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation,” and his duty took place aboard the cramped, creaky decks of Liberty ships sailing to stock American troops and their allies. While with the Merchant Marine, Gene sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific, crossed back and forth through the Panama Canal and saw more of the world than an Illinois farm boy ever expected.
He does not speak of his service; I had to pry stories out of him. And what I heard amounted to fascinating and frightening tales. He recalled the days he crawled to his post, hand over hand, as storms crashed his ship and three-story waves loomed over the deck like granite cliffs, and the nights when he saw flashes of fire through the inky night as ships on the fringes of the convoy were torpedoed and sunk. More often, he rode the center of the convoy, on ships loaded with armaments. Gene said he had to force out of his mind thoughts of what might happen if a torpedo hit one of those.
And so while many Americans everywhere have enjoyed a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer, I content myself with the images and stories passed along from my father and father-in-law.
Instead of barbecue, I recall from my childhood the musty smells of yellowing yearbooks embossed with the carriers my father sailed on and filled with photos of 3,000 or so of his colleagues. Instead of enjoying the pageantry of parades, I prefer sifting the dusty snapshots of my father-in-law in his Merchant Marine uniform, so large it seemed to hang on his small frame.
They would prefer I go out and enjoy this holiday weekend. But it’s not really my weekend. It’s theirs.