Once, when I was small, my father taught me something useless. I had seen the old photographs and held the medals in my hand. Purple Heart and Bronze Star. I had been clamoring for stories of what he did in that war. What kind of guns did he shoot? Did he get to use his bayonet? How many Japs did he kill?
But he taught me something useless instead. He taught me how to figure out the firing order for an 18 cylinder aircraft engine. I had a pretty dim understanding of what cylinders did in an engine (I was only seven years old, after all), but I listened and I learned. Somehow I forgot about the war while we talked.
Sometimes he would tell me about his buddies from boot camp – the slim, smiling young men in the old photographs. I especially loved the story of the brawl they started one night in a bar, and how he escaped the Shore Patrol by slipping out through a bathroom window. And his friend who took him for a ride in a Corsair, a single seat fighter. They took out the radio gear to make room for my dad behind the pilot’s seat. The Corsair went into a dive so steep and fast that my father blacked out for a few seconds.
As I grew older my dad did share some of his darker memories with me. It was very different from what I had read in books and seen in movies. I began to catch a glimpse of the pride and terror of combat Marines, how they clung to each other as brothers, facing unimaginable horrors in a violent and pitiless crucible.
He described the queer, queasy feeling he got in the pit of his stomach, diving “ass over teakettle” into war as a tailgunner in a Dauntless Divebomber. And the queer, queasy feeling he got piloting a slow, ungainly Catalina PBY flying boat in a combat zone full of Japanese fighters. And the tight, heavy feeling in his stomach when he returned from a foot patrol near Yontan airfield on Okinawa, with only one other man of the ten who had left with him, and that man wounded and soon to die. He was seventeen when he enlisted. By the time he was nineteen he was a sergeant of Marines, and marked for life.
He was never strident. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t preach. He spoke of awful things in a flat voice and I knew the terrible price that had been paid by men like him in that struggle.
Many stories are told of the bond between father and son. Dramatic stories of courage, sacrifice, and impossible odds overcome by the power of a father’s love. But I think that bond shows its power most often in quiet, mundane ways. Like this:
That’s the firing order of a World War II vintage 18 cylinder aircraft engine - a bit of useless lore carried for decades as a token of love by the son, a symbol of that enduring bond, and a talisman for me to cling to and celebrate a life that ended years ago.
Happy Father's Day, Dad. I remember.
(First posted June 19, 2005)