Memorial Day – a tradition in America since the Civil War. A day to honor the memory of the men and women who died in defense of this country. I once thought I knew no one from this hallowed company of heroes, and then, one day, I realized that I did. Though my father made it through the battlefield experience to return home, he left so much of his youthful self on foreign soil that he was never again the man my mother married. He became a distant and dark secret that was kept from both my brother and me.
Cpl. 'Pat' Patterson fought for freedom in two wars, including the D-Day Landing in France and then in the Korean War. He was awarded Silver and Bronze stars and other badges of WWII heroism that now sit in a velvet box tucked into my dresser drawer. Medals that could never heal his deeply wounded spirit. By the time I was four years old, he'd been banished from home and family.
So, I never really knew my dad – but I do have a handful of memories of his physical self: A tall man with dark curly hair climbing the stairs of our apartment in Chamberlain, South Dakota. He'd been a watchmaker at the local Wall Drug Store. There'd been a fire in the building, and he rescued a little suitcase with a sweet white lamb on the front for me. That memory, and then one from much later, after we were living with my mother and her parents in Minnesota, and he came for a brief visit. I was maybe six years old. He had a big sedan, took me for a short ride, and let me sit on his lap and steer. There was a lot of shouting and remonstrations when he returned me to my grandparents' home, and they learned about my first 'driving' experience.
From then on, it was an occasional phone call that was strictly monitored and a series of birthday presents that kept him alive in my memory and imagination. The silence and mystery surrounding this separation naturally led me to make him a hero, a savior. So much bigger than my life in a tiny, crowded house where railroad tracks across the street were the only hope of something brighter and beyond. Lying in bed, I would dream about jumping on a freight train and setting off to find him.
Twenty years later, I convinced a boyfriend to drive me south to Arkansas and my dad. He was tucked away in a small town at the foot of the Ozarks. And when I saw him walking toward me on a dusty downtown street, those childhood visions of a savior were shattered. In the first hug of decades, I smelled alcohol on his breath. He took me to his home and a woman named Martha. The house was barely furnished. Inside the refrigerator, I found a half-empty fifth of gin and a piece of leftover hamburger. Nothing else. He and Martha left to spend the night at the American Legion Club. I spent it on a mattress on the floor. The next morning, before he was awake, I fled.
But that first visit led to more phone calls and, eventually, the news that he'd stopped drinking. I tried again. With my toddler son, we flew east and were met at the small airport by my dad and Martha. He drove a big gray, windowless van. My son and I sat on folding chairs in the back with an overweight dog at our feet. Martha tried to be friendly, but I could tell that we were unwelcome.
We spent a couple of nights at the house he'd moved to after leaving the city where the Legion bar was his second home. On the third night of our visit, he settled into a tattered blue easy chair. An unfiltered cigarette hung from his lips and made the air thick. He was not the father I'd created. His shoulders were rounded, his hair was sparse and white, but his eyes – they were still the bright blue I'd remembered. He picked up a satin box from the side table and slowly opened it. Inside were medals – a Purple Heart, a couple of distinguished service medals, ribbons, and, wrapped in a velvet cloth, a Silver Star and Bronze Star. He said he'd been on the landing at Normandy. No details. He told me that I "… wouldn't want to know. It's all in the past."
With those words, I realized he'd spent his entire life there, in the past, after the wars, still fighting them. The events that led to the blue box in his hands were daily companions that he'd tried to drive away with drinks and the comfort of women who didn't know or love him. I knew he would take that loneliness and pain with him to his grave. Two years later, I got his last call. He had cancer. Bad. Throat cancer. And, no, he assured me, it wasn't from smoking. He said his doctor told him that. It was just a month later that he was laid to rest in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Martha didn't want me there. I didn't go.
Ironically, so many veterans who are lauded with medals and praise also harbor guilt and responsibility for acts we call heroism. I'll never know what my dad did to walk through the rest of his life as a haunted hero. Clearly, commendations and medals can't heal such deeply embedded wounds. I'm thankful that today, the military offers counseling and support to soldiers suffering from battlefield trauma. There is a chance they won't carry their burdens for a lifetime, as did the dad I never knew.
So, I'll have him with me over the weekend. I'll think about the personal traits that came my way through him (Impulsiveness, mischief, curiosity). And I'll remember that when I was in big trouble in my childhood home, someone would shout, "You're just like your father!" And I never once thought that was a bad thing.
Thank you again for being with me as I occasionally walk you through my Memory Lane. I hope you are all heading into a peaceful, healthy, and upbeat summer - we could all use one of those, right? Remember that I love to hear from you and respond to each and every message at email@example.com
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