My Dad, The Hero

It’s 3 am. Across the narrow hall from the bedroom where I am attempting to sleep I can hear my step mom Pat softly babbling. Every couple of minutes I hear my dad say, “We need to get to sleep Pat”, “Pat, we need to be quiet now”. Sleep is a rare and fleeting Luna Moth on this long tearful night.

Like most boys who grew up in the 50’s I thought my dad was a hero. Unlike most boys I had proof. The most obvious evidence of his heroism was the dime sized patches of shiny skin on his right breast and under his right shoulder blade, stigmata left by the German machine pistol bullet which took him out of combat in WWII. The less obvious but more official proof lay hidden in his sock drawer; two black leather cases that cradled a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart medal. A yellowing newspaper column tucked into the Bronze Star box told a short version of the events that rainy September day, the mission that led to his scars, his battlefield commission, the medals.

Like most veterans of the time he talked very little about his months of combat. His carefully curated snapshot album however detailed his journey from 10th Mountain Division winter mountain training in Colorado to a regular army rifle platoon command slogging up the “boot” of Italy. It told just enough in white inked captions under the photos to feed my imagination, to fill in tantalizing details of bivouacs and busted Panzer tanks, of the Company mutt and the infantry man’s hollow eyed stare after weeks “on the line”.

Dad always had an air of Clark Kent about him. By day he was a Lockheed Space and Missiles project estimator. Slightly balding and barely over 5' 7", he left home each morning in a dark suit, narrow tie, and horned rimmed glasses. He never talked about his job, couldn’t really given the top secret nature of the bids he worked on for the production of nuclear tipped missiles. But he had stayed in the Army Reserves and on certain nights, like Superman exiting the phone booth, he would don his full dress uniform, ribbon “board” on his left chest, and even carried his officer’s saber once or twice. Then there were fall weekends, when he underwent the full transformation, from dweebish corporate functionary to horse wrangling, rifle toting outdoorsman.

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We would rent day horses from an old family friend who ran a pack station on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We would ride far up a canyon off the back side of Yosemite, leaving the trails behind to roam the ridges and creek bottoms in search of deer. He handled saddle horses as naturally and easily as I did a three speed bike, tightening cinches after the veteran mounts had walked a mile or so and were breathing good, stopping for lunch on a likely meadow edge and just dropping the reins while everybody ate. He knew that horses will hold their breath to cheat the early morning wrangler out of a notch on the cinch strap, that if you don’t check on them you stand to lose a saddle blanket and maybe lame a good mount with saddle sores. He knew that horses were far more interested in cropping the sweet mountain grass than in bolting for the home corral.

I slept through his first demonstration of the slightly foolish courage that had propelled him up several rocky slopes leading twenty five terrified riflemen to assault German machine gun positions. I was fourteen, we were camped out in Yellowstone National Park with the “cab over” camper lifted off our truck, my brother and I sleeping under a tarp in the empty pickup bed. My dad, mom and sister slept in the camper and, according to my mom, they were woken in the night by noises outside by the truck. Peering through the back door he saw a bear with front feet up on the bumper sniffing at our heads. There seemed to be no time to dig out the shotgun stashed under the camper bed; grabbing a six inch hunting knife he opened the door, and in bare feet and boxer shorts stepped out to confront the bear. Fortunately for everybody, the bear had the good sense to run away, but I have little doubt how it might have gone.

The second time I saw this side of his personal nerve was two years later, camped out in the cab over again, this time on an early fall dove hunt. We were sitting at the table after dinner, talking and lounging before bed, when a long, sonorous siren began to sound. We were miles from the nearest town, parked beside a gravel farm road in a wide equipment staging area next to crossing irrigation canals. The siren rose slowly in pitch for twenty seconds or so, then held for thirty seconds before tolling back down to rise again. We had never heard anything like it. We tried to ignore it but it went on and on, then dad spoke what we both were thinking, “Do you think it might be a raid?”

It struck me at the time, “raid” was a strange word for the event the siren might be heralding. It’s hard for people born after the 70s to conjure the common daily fears of the cold war years. Dad worked five miles from our house helping to build Polaris and Poseidon missiles, critical legs of the U.S. nuclear “triad”. Even closer though was Moffitt Field, headquarters for U.S. anti-submarine warfare along the California coast. The Soviets would probably not bother with Lockheed, but Moffitt had to be a target of highest priority. Our house was almost certainly in the circle of total destruction for a Soviet missile striking the runways where P-3 Orions did “touch and go” landings in mission readiness. That would only matter short term of course. This “raid” would come in the form of a nuclear attack that would probably destroy the U.S. as a nation.

The raids my dad had weathered in Italy were violent, flaming, bloody affairs, but the planes in that war dropped their bombs, turned around, and flew away. He has joked that one of the few benefits of being short was the ability to hide in a shallower fox hole; there would be little shelter for anyone after megaton scale warheads took out the military bases and major cities across the state, across the country. We listened to the siren in growing anxiety, then dad made a decision, “I think we should take cover”.

We piled out the back door of the camper, he and I and our Labrador Trudy. He and I scurried across the gravel to the concrete lined, four foot deep, dry culvert and hopped in. Trudy had other ideas. She usually only left the vehicle on leash, walking at heel until released in the field; we had forgotten to leash her. “Trudy, Come!” he ordered. She had her moment of freedom, she knew something weird was going on, she was not sold on the idea of coming to the two heads peering at her over the lip of the culvert. “Trudy, COME, come Here”, he added. She was even less convinced, scampering nervously around thirty yards away. It took all my courage to look over the edge. The siren tolled, in my mind’s eye I could see the searing white, flesh stripping flash of the incoming warhead. I deeply desired to crouch down and take full advantage of the reinforced concrete walls.

Placing a hand on the culvert lip dad vaulted out into the open, ran Trudy down and dragged her to “safety”. We all three crouched between the tumble weeds trapped at the dusty culvert bottom and waited. I was amazed. I loved our dog of course but no way was I running out in the open to mess with her. For dad she was his responsibility, maybe not family the way my brother and I were, but family none the less and he couldn’t take a safe position until we all were safe, even the dog.

We waited, growing stiff and cold in the autumn air. The siren blared on for twenty minutes or so, and then stopped. We waited. We waited, now starting to feel a little foolish. “You know, we could go turn on the radio, there would definitely be an alert if something was happening”, one of us posited. And that’s what we did, a Central Valley DJ was playing Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, “Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend, pass it over to me”. “That means marijuana, doesn’t it” he asked. Mustering all the innocence I could manage I replied, “I think so, Dad”.

We asked at a gas station the next day about the strange siren in the night. It was a volunteer fire brigade summons; out in the farm country they had no standing fire department; when something burned, when a fire call came in they lit up the siren which could be heard for miles around and the volunteers would rally. That was our last hunting season together for many years, he and my mom divorced the next summer, he moved out of the house, out of town. He remarried.

There’s a strange passage between father and son as they age, the moment when the dad hands down his sword, when he dad asks the son for advice, for help, when the son takes command during difficulties. My father’s confidence was badly shaken when my mom divorced him. It never fully recovered, and by the time he reached his late sixties I was making more of the decisions, was fielding the doubts and concerns. In his late eighties he called me in tears. Friends were telling him that his second wife Pat, his true soul mate and the love of his life, seemed to be declining in dementia. She had probably concealed it for some years, he had no doubt denied it to himself, but both concealment and denial were playing out as strategies.

I started commuting every month or so from Utah to Sacramento, working with a couple of her dear friends to fill in shopping and cleaning needs, catching up on the bills and accounts he was now letting slide. I finally enlisted their wonderful next door neighbor to cook daily meals and clean, to be my eyes and ears as well in the weeks when I was at home. I had been renting a car to drive out so that I could bring my dog along and have the flexibility to come and go on my own schedule, and then finally flew out to take her car home for the future commutes. The day after I called to tell him I was coming she “went off the cliff”.

According to her doctor this was a predictable stage in the dementia; something important had disconnected in her brain and she could no longer take care of the simple tasks, feeding and toileting, in Pat’s case she was no longer even getting out of her chair. Dad had called 911 and ridden with her to the Emergency Room, there the doctors had pulled him aside and had conducted cognitive tests on him. In desperation he had called her son to come rescue them, putting off the inevitable, at least until I got there.

And so I took over, calling 911 again and staying with her through a night in the ER until scans and tests could show that she wasn’t suffering from a stroke or other obvious brain event, getting the diagnosis we would need to justify “coverage” for what was to come. Dad had promised Pat, when they were caring for her mom through dementia and death, that he would never put her in an institution. His promise was now, as Nixon’s press secretary once said, “inoperative”. I didn’t have long to work things out. Once a person is “down in a chair” it’s technically elder abuse to not find better care for them. I was fortunate, I found a care facility in a converted home a mile or so away, clean and bright, the caregivers seemed friendly and professional.

I wrote the big check, called her son Chris and the next door neighbor to help with the move, and somehow though she was no longer speaking and seemed not to understand us, she knew. That last night she got up after we had gone to bed and walked back to their bedroom, tried to get into their bed. She could only get partly under the covers, one foot remained on the floor. She could no longer talk but continued to speak in an unintelligible babble. He tried to comfort her, to quiet her, the night stretched on.

I woke with a start around 5 am to the sound of my dad weeping next door in the third bedroom. His broken promise, the inevitability that would rule that morning, the grief of a disease that was little by little stealing her away; he was breaking like his promise, like his marriage.

They never spent more than an hour together from that day until her death four months later. Dad didn’t have the strength to visit longer, his grief, her inability to talk or even to recognize him proved to be more than his once steely will and courage could bear. We sat with her for an hour on the afternoon that she died. Her nurses had called me to say that it was time, to not delay. One of her two dear friends came in as we left and then called me an hour later as I walked my dog by the river. She was gone.

If we are fortunate to live long enough life is probably going to break us, weak or strong, cowardly or brave. The hero is going to face a rocky slope that is just too steep to take. The strength that once flowed like a pure liquor through the blood will burn out, leaving us to struggle just to raise out of a chair to spend one more night with a beloved. And who’s to say which act takes the more courage? To a boy looking up in admiration, facing danger and death with your blood running hot seems to be the height of heroism. To a son looking down as his father ages and fades though, courage might look more like facing another day in the full knowledge of the ways you fell short.

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Kasadia

Kasadia

Writing mostly to myself. Sharing some of it with you. Hope it helps.