My Father, the Veteran
I was looking at some old family photos one day and came across a picture of my father with some other men from my town. They were dressed in the uniforms of the Ceremony Team. The Ceremony Team would fire the final salute of three volleys over the grave of a fallen comrade. In this case it was to be over the grave marker of an unknown soldier. In our little town this particular grave stone was on a small patch of land in front of one of our many towns’ taverns. As is the case of many small blue collar towns, the churches and taverns abide peacefully on opposite corners.
I remember Memorial Day many years ago when I was a boy scout. We would march in the Memorial Day parade, which marked the first holiday of summer and was usually our first day of summer vacation. Just a few days prior to this day we had read a story in class about a girl who got the honor of carrying the statue of the Blessed Virgin in the May Day procession. While all the other girls waved their hands and jumped up and down to have the nun select her, this particular girl shied away from the frenzy and was the one selected to carry the statue. As we boy assembled in the school hall prior to the parade we like those girls wanted so badly to carry the Stars and Stripes in the parade. As all the boys waved their hands and jostled for the honor, I remembered the story and then shied away from the pack. “Ok Johnny you’ll be the one to carry the flag today said the Scout Master.” WOW I could hardly believe it! I felt like Dad and the other men who had been soldiers. There was a strap that fit around the body with a small pouch that you put the flag pole in. “Now remember the American flag is always above other flags and will only be lowered when we get to the marker. Ok yes sir I got it” while smiling the biggest smile. I could not believe that I would be carrying the flag all the way through town and my Mom and sister would see me.
It was a cold morning but not unusual for May in Western Pennsylvania as we stepped off trying our best to keep in cadence. The parade wound through town then stopped by the marker for the Unknown Soldier. After remarks made by various officials the Ceremony Team stepped up and fired the three volleys for their fallen comrades. The parade over our family went home for a picnic and a day of rest.
I often wondered what went on in the minds’ of my father and the other men assembled there on that day and many others like them. Did they feel guilty for surviving? Did they think about friends who never made it home? One of the boys father’s had lost an arm in World War II and this boy would always make up a story like ‘he chewed it off or something foolish like that until one day tiring of all the questions said he lost it in Italy”. Aside from the obvious physical wounds were the psychological ones, the ones no one could see but those who carried them within themselves. My father suffered from migraine headaches all his life along with a partial loss of hearing from wounds suffered in World War II.
He was a combat engineer who drove a semi carrying a bull dozer that was used to clear the roads so the division could advance. He stepped on a running board and while backing up the truck and ran over a land mine. He was thrown clear of the truck but sustained head wounds and was evacuated to England. He almost died from those wounds. I often wondered how much that experience changed him. I have pictures of him before he left the United States for Wales and then the invasion of Europe. He was always smiling and liked to tease and pull pranks. My memories of him were of a person whose moods would change as suddenly as the weather. Today he would have been diagnosed as having PTSD. He never talked to me about the horrors of war. Now and again he would tell me some funny stories like the time his company “liberated” a wine cellar and the all got drunk. The company commander, captain had a fit as he was concerned that the Germans might attack and well what shape would they have be in to defend themselves. Then there was the time he took a turn too sharply and shaved off the corner of a building in France.
The only serious story he told me was a year or two before he passed. During the Battle of the Bulge he had gotten separated from his company after the German break through. He found himself in a foxhole guarding a bridge against the Germans. In the moonlight as they sat guard they were all silhouetted against the night. He told me that was the scariest moment of his life. A year later he passed and the Ceremony Team came and fired three volleys over this grave of yet another comrade. They gave me the flag that had been draped over his coffin. I have it in a case on a mantle, along with his medals that I had put in a case for him.