Sep
22

My father died almost forty years ago.  I remember that day well. In those days I usually called home every Sunday just to say hello to my folks and to let them know I was fine.  My father’s birthday, his 58th, was on a Friday, but I chose to wait until my regular Sunday phone call on that Sunday to give him my “Happy Birthday Pop.” I never got the chance.  That Saturday I got a phone call from a relative who was making the necessary phone calls.  She is a health care professional and in the professional way they had taught her she said “I’m sorry to have to tell you but your father has expired.” Expired. Like a parking meter his time was up. This wasn’t a complete surprise, it was his sixth heart attack that I knew of and he had been forced to retire early because of his ill health.  Nevertheless he had been in okay health when I had spoken to him the  previous Sunday.  He had a heart attack while driving on his way home after doing some Saturday morning errands.  My foster brothers were in the car with him when he had a massive heart attack, slumped over the wheel, and managed to slow the car down while it  slowly drifted until it hit a tree. The foster kids were unhurt but for a while they were adamant about not going down that street. He had passed away by the time the EMT’s got to him. I dutifully flew back to New York from California and must have sleepwalked my way through all the funeral rituals.  I have little memory of them.

Eighteen years later my mother passed away from lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker) but that’s another story.  As we were packing up the house after her death I ran into a box containing my father’s medals from World War 2. My father had served in Army campaigns in North Africa and Europe. He talked little about his Army experiences except to tell me to take care of my feet because he said, “when your feet hurt nothing else is right.” Aside from this practical advice he did not talk about the war or his experiences there.  In fact my father wasn’t much of a talker at all.  Oh he was polite and loved by all he met, but when alone he was introverted and content to sit and read the newspaper. It was in fact the newspaper that precipitated his applying for his medals.  He read an article about all the World War 2 vets who were owed medals, but who had never claimed them. By this time his health had started to become an issue and he was forced to spend more time away from his work as a building superintendent in Manhattan.  He was eventually forced into an early retirement. At my mother’s urging he applied for his medals and a few months later (this was the military) they arrived. There were more than a half dozen of them.  Most were campaign and service medals that you got just for showing up. One, however was the Bronze Star for heroic action. He never explained what he got it for, although he looked at it and you could tell that it brought back memories, but ones that he preferred to keep to himself. Later he said that he got the medals so that we kids would know that he once was somebody.  We had never thought otherwise.

Several years ago I tried to find out how the Bronze Star was earned by writing to the designated military bureaucracy, but their form letter reply contained no additional information except the campaign and date it was awarded. I guess it will forever remain a mystery. More to the point “Why do I keep my father’s medals so long after he died?” I have never served in the military. I was of an age to serve during the Vietnam War, but first a student deferment and then a high number in Nixon’s draft lottery meant that I never even got close to serving.  Nor have I ever wanted to serve in the military.  As a kid I never had toy soldiers or GI Joe’s and never even pretended I was in the military. I was part of the generation that questioned American participation in the Vietnam War.  I could not imagine being in a war zone where people were shooting at me, trying to kill me, and I would have had to shoot back. As I grew older I have become more and more opposed to war and cognizant of the toll it has taken on the young men and women of our country. Every time there is jingoistic talk and saber-rattling I just shake my head in wonder.  I understand that the medals and the pomp and circumstance around them hide the ugly reality of war so that young people will continue to serve.

So why do I keep my father’s medals? Perhaps because they were my father’s medals.He wanted me to have them. When I pass on they can be thrown out, I doubt that anyone else will want them. For the meantime they can stay in their cardboard box, a silent link between us that matters to me but that no one else cares about.

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5 Responses to “Why Do I Keep My Father’s Medals?”

 
  1. Selby Frame says:

    Nice piece, Randy. I also have a velvet box with my father’s (his favorite I am told was his bronze marksmanship rifle pin). I am fortunate that I have the story behind his purple heart–from shrapnel wounds suffered during the Battle of the Bulge–in the form of a poem he wrote, “Ode to a Shrapnel Ant.” It traces the determined, teetering course of an ant that he watched as he lay on the battle field. Oh, our men!

  2. Jeffrey Drummond says:

    Beautiful, Randy. So nice to hear more about your dad.

  3. Randy says:

    Thanks Jeffrey.

  4. Cindy Jenson-Elliitt says:

    It’s the individual stories that mean so much. It’s not the medal itself, but personal experience behind it that matters. Of course you’ll keep them. So will your son.

 

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