At the Memorial Day observance at Riverside Park, I was tempted to talk about my father’s military service…but I didn’t. I think it’s an important story about a unique and very American character, but it’s not the kind you would typically hear about on that hallowed day. My father passed away last year about this time and he rarely spoke of his time in the Army, but not for the reasons one might think.
My dad enlisted in the Army during WWII… Twice. Once when he was 16 years old and once when he was 17. The first time he was “ratted out” by his mother and quickly escorted home by the military police. The second time, despite his family’s objections, he succeeded. So far as his reasons for enlisting, it wasn’t because he was anxious to serve his country, it was because he was anxious to stop serving his stepfather. His older brothers had all enlisted in other branches of the service and had left him to deal with his stepfather’s constant badgering and ordering him around.
Unfortunately for my father, the Army was full of people whose job and apparent joy in life was to constantly badger and order him around. Military service was not at all what he expected and as a result of an “inconvenient” combination of unwillingness to conform and excellent leadership skills, he proudly became the “Cool Hand Luke” of peeling potatoes, making the rank of Sergeant… 6 times. I say proudly, because he had spent his entire childhood trying to get out from under the shadow of his brothers and parents authority and he wasn’t about to let the U.S. Army take his independence away from him. Of course this made complete sense to me, because I had seen my dad give a lot of orders, but I hadn’t ever seen him take one. When I asked him why he put up with the situation for four years he smiled and said, “Because I wasn’t about to let them make me quit!”
So, my father fought a war on 2 fronts: one with authority and his own private demons and one with Germany. He served in the Corps of Engineers in Europe at the end of the WW2 and consequently spent his time doing the grim duty of cleaning up the debris of War. He was always proud of the friends he had made and of the places he had been, but he would never speak in detail about the carnage he witnessed while digging the trenches and demolishing the bombed out buildings and camps. I think that his experience, although different than some others, still allowed him to understand the sacrifice of men and woman that fight our country’s battles and what the very real cost of war is.
And although he would never admit that the Army had changed him, I know one thing for a fact…. he never peeled another potato for the rest of his life.