May 30, 2011
Really annoyed when the ringing phone revealed one of my father’s POW buddies. He was rifling through papers on his desk and had found the letter I had sent to him over a year ago that my dad had died. My father’s experience as a Korean War POW had overshadowed his whole life and mine by extension. He had never really recovered and constantly used those years of privation and torture to undermine the legitimacy of any demand I might have of my own. In turn, I was an outspoken pacificist and fought with my father regularly about the military and everything else.
Nonetheless, this fellow – I’ll call him Joe – was going to tell me stories about the camp. He asked me a bit about myself and in response to my curt answers said that my father was probably proud of me. With a freedom I never allowed myself while he was alive, I said, “Not really. He didn’t like girls and never really cared to know what I was doing.” “So you were a disappointment to him. Well, that happens.” Undeterred, he went on, “John did not really understand other people, but he was a great soldier. He paid a lot of attention to the little things and he survived a great ordeal. He was really tortured in the camp and we called him Iron John
That deal with his finger was really something. First he lost the tip, then the next joint and then the whole finger. He was on the way to losing his hand, his arm and his shoulder, but he walked around the camp and gathered up corn stalks to heat up water to soak his hand. That really saved him. The other men would help him and gather up corn stalks, too. The Chinese didn’t like that and punished the men for that but they kept on helping him. They didn’t like it when we helped each other out.”
OK. That was a very new spin on an old, tired tale. According to my dad, he had to do it all alone. His family of origin had taught him that no one would help him and he filtered his whole life through that belief.
“But John could be kind of funny, too. One time, he was mad at some of the men and he started to point. When he realized he was pointing with the finger he had lost, he just raised up his other hand and pointed with that one.
Bitter but funny. I knew that about my dad. As I tried to wrap up the conversation, Joe went on.
“Well, I’ll just let you go. Just wanted to talk to someone really. I lost my wife yesterday.” What? Did you just say that your wife died?
“She was born on Armistice Day and died the day before Memorial Day. She was a nurse and she always gave me very good advice.” Do you have family to be with?
“I have a son. He’s a retired lieutenant colonel.” It just seemed mean to ask why he wasn’t calling his son. Maybe the son was en route to Florida, where Joe had retired. Or, maybe military culture is not that amenable to creating a warm family life for other families, too.
This conversation brought me back to my father’s last weeks. He lived in a continuing care community for retired and honorably discharged military officers. He was a retired lieutenant colonel, class of ’49 at West Point. He had passed on an almost ridiculously single minded passion for the military to my brother, who in turn had starting calling his own son “soldier” from the minute he was born. Now eight, Johnny the Third had been wearing fatigues since he was six months old and had a vast collection of toy soldiers, guns and other military toys.
My father demanded that I be his care-giving supervisor in the last weeks of his life - a task suitable only for a girl. So, I spent a lot of time taking him to the hospital at Travis Air Force Base. I had many flashbacks of life on military bases in Germany, Fort Bragg, Korea and Fort Mason. So much was still the same as the days of my childhood when we got to ride to school in the back of a jeep. One late afternoon, I was pulled over by the military police as I unknowingly sped through the main gate after a visit to my dad. One positioned himself in front of the car door, flashing a light in my face while the other kept a rear guard position. The aggressive energy was about 15 times higher than I had experienced from civilian police. I was being treated as a dangerous and potentially violent person with no exceptions to protocol. With my heart racing, I said I was visiting my dad in the hospital; I was upset, anxious and unaware that I was speeding. He actually called the unit where my dad was and confirmed my story before exercising mercy and letting me go with a stern lecture but without a ticket.
After this re-introduction to military life, I started to actually like going to the base and the hospital. The degree of efficiency, courtesy and friendliness was like a dream come true. When people said they would call, they called. If you needed tissues, someone would bring you tissues within 5 minutes. The doctors were smart, available and spent lots of time explaining things. My father’s cardiologist, like all the staff, had to stay in great shape. He bragged to me that he was beating all the younger guys in the training runs. The ICU attending doctor told me about the cutting edge medicine he had practiced and developed in the field and some times under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nurses in the ICU were like androids – totally responsive, alert, attentive and excellent. Not to mention that they literally brought my father back from the dead in one short week.
After a while I got to talking with the staff on my father’s unit. They told me about their service. In fact, practically the whole hospital was going to be deployed to Afghanistan in about two weeks. President Obama had just announced a surge on TV and here they were, responding in real time. I spoke with a respiratory therapist whose husband was stationed in Alaska. They had two kids and had been stationed far apart for about 6 years. They liked their jobs, but not the separation. She was going to retire after this next stint in Afghanistan just so they could be together as a family.
But, the craziest part was that the power and the allure of the military started to work on me. Even though I had lived with the dark side of war, I became fascinated by military life. Everyone, even the lowest ranked, walked with a brisk sense of purpose. No one had to figure out their life; their immediate mission and their career paths were clear. It seemed like an enormous burden was offloaded from their shoulders. That was tantalizing to someone like me, for whom each morning is a blank slate to be created anew. I even went so far as to wander over to the social services unit and left a message for the head therapist. Maybe I could resuscitate my old family therapy license and work with the military in some way; be vicariously connected to this powerful and beguiling culture in which the will of the individual was in submission to the greater whole. That part of the military is just amazing. The act of giving yourself to a greater cause really seems to be a deep human need. And, I had to admit, I wanted to be part of a greater purpose and, if I didn’t think about the purpose being to kill and destroy the “enemy”, this deal sounded pretty good.
Iron John let down his guard in the last weeks of his life. He had stoically hoisted himself up from his easy chair to walk to the community dining room for about a year before he finally gave in to my ongoing suggestions that he get either a walker or an electric scooter. Once he started using a walker, it was like a house of cards collapsed. He became instantly utterly dependent on people to help him with every detail of life: “can you please hand me the box of Kleenex?” which was about 6 inches from his hand. It was astonishing, actually, to see him give in to an endless well of need that had been walled off behind his self-sufficient facade. After his last hospitalization, he wanted me to stay and feed him ice cream out of a Dixie cup, hold the straw to his lips while he drank and make endless, minute adjustments with his pillows.
A couple of days before my father died, I called my brother so he and his family could fly in from Las Vegas to say good-bye. After a day of visiting, a jolt of energy suddenly gripped his body and he pulled my brother close and said carefully and loudly, just to be sure he would understand, “I’ve been thinking about my life and the Army a lot. It’s no good. Don’t let Johnny go into the Army.” My brother was stunned and speechless. My dad repeated it and said, “The Army is too risky. If Johnny doesn’t get killed, he could get maimed and that is no way to go through life. It’s not worth it. Don’t let Johnny go into the Army. Promise me.” He started getting agitated, pulling on my brother’s shirt and I think he mumbled something to make my father stop, but clearly he thought my father had lost his mind. My father went on saying that his time as a POW had harmed him psychologically and that it had affected him for the rest of his life.
My brother never mentioned it to me and I am sure he made himself instantly forget that episode. But it echoes in my mind and I can only sigh and shake my head. Why is that only Death lifts the veil to reveal Truth?