Flags of My Father

It didn’t really dawn on me that my dad served in the military till about 7 years ago. I knew he served, but he was in the Army Reserves. For some stupid reason that didn’t register as military. As a kid it seemed more like some weekend camping trips he had attended before I was born. There were relics from his time in the reserves that made it into my existence. There was a couple army shirts with “Hubner” stitched above the breast pocket. There were a couple army hats as well; one a winter cap that looked like something you’d see a Russian soldier wearing in Siberia, while the other was a ball cap that I wore around the house as a little kid. My dad also had an army trench coat that hung in the hall closet till my brother graduated high school and began wearing it. With his long long hair he looked like a cross between an army brat Jim Morrison and The Crow. He wore that thing till it was literally shreds.

In the basement there was an old quilt chest. In that quilt chest were old Halloween decorations, some ancient automotive manuals, and what looked to me to be a yearbook. Except it was a yearbook for the Army Reserves. Inside the book were photos of men going thru basic training, hanging out in their quarters smoking cigarettes, drinking beers, and playing cards. There were jeeps and cannons and a section for what looked like yearbook photos. My dad was in there(along with a picture of him smoking, something I never saw him do.)

I’d ask him to get that book out once in a while so I could see him, much leaner in his army greens, short hair, and no beard. As a kid it was a connection to a dad I’d never known. The smell of the mildew-y chest clung to the book as I looked at it on the living room couch. He’d let me leaf thru it till I started sneezing from the stench of old and forgotten, then he’d throw it back in with the cardboard pumpkins and dingle dangle Frankenstein my mom would hang on the living room window every October.

Despite seeing photos of my dad as a soldier, since he’d never gone to war I never counted him as a “soldier”. I had two uncles that served as well, and both were in Vietnam. My mom’s brother was a truck driver, while my aunt’s husband was a gunner on a chopper. Both made it home, but had their own emotional scars to contend with for years. My cousins would talk about their dads and their time in the jungle. My dad never spoke of his time in the reserves, so it felt like it wasn’t the same thing. It felt like a different army. A different thing all together. I’m not even sure my cousins knew my dad was in the reserves. It just wasn’t a thing we discussed.

But about seven years ago I’d gone to my niece’s high school graduation with my parents. It was on Memorial Day weekend. We made our way through a sea of cars to the high school gymnasium, which felt like a journey in itself. We then made the climb to the nosebleed seats to nearly the top of the gym. As the principal began speaking he’d said that in honor of Memorial Day coming up he’d like all the men and women that served our country to stand up. To my left my dad stood up, rising above me. I was at first a little startled, thinking he might tumble the mile and a half down to the floor of the gym. But then in an instant it dawned on me there was a gym full of parents, grandparents, and onlookers clapping in honor of my father, as well as all the others standing awkwardly. They were showing respect to the man I used to look at in that moldy yearbook in the quilt chest. The man that never spoke about serving. The man that had worked at the same printing company for almost 50 years to support his family. In that instant I felt like that little kid, looking up at my dad. Looking up to my dad.

The army reserves weren’t a big part of my dad’s life. To him, it was a lesser of two evils. He was newly married with a young wife and an infant son in 1967. The draft was happening and he didn’t want to be one of the unlucky numbers pulled. So instead of taking his chances he joined the reserves. It worked. He never had to go to Vietnam. He did basic training in Oklahoma, and his home base was Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was a marksman and a cannoneer in the US Army Reserves. He did his three years and was out, free to serve a lifetime at RR Donnelley & Sons printing JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and Sears catalogs.

I never knew my dad as a soldier. I knew him as a blue collar working guy. Someone that loved cars, Stephen King books, and Don Martin illustrations. I knew him as a lover of IU college basketball, the Chicago White Sox, and Charles M Schulz. He took my brother and I to see movies like Krull, Rambo : First Blood Part II, and Cloak and Dagger when my mom had no interest. He read war books like Chickenhawk and true crime novels like In Cold Blood and The Onion Fields. He loved the book Flags of Our Fathers. He said the movie made him cry. Thinking about that makes me want to cry, too.

So this Memorial Day I thank my dad for his service. Not his service to his country, but to his family. His service to his wife and two sons.

 

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