Just up the street from my boyhood home sat a nondescript white farmhouse. It was a small, depression-era house with a broad porch from which a solitary American flag flew year-round. A pair of large shade trees framed the porch and a long concrete sidewalk led to the street. When the weather was pleasant, passers-by would find the porch occupied by the three elderly occupants, men known around the neighborhood as “the brothers.” At one time, the brothers had tended the land on which we now lived, parceling it out over the years as the town expanded and the demand for new homes increased. By the time we moved to the area in the late 1960s, the little white house was all that remained of what was once a thriving fruit orchard.
As a boy, I would often wander up the street to visit the brothers on their porch. They were surprisingly tolerant of my six-year old self, patiently answering my endless questions and only shooing me back home when Paul Harvey came on the radio in the afternoon. Whenever I regaled my family with tales of my conversations with the brothers, my father would sternly remind me, “You be respectful of them. They’re veterans.”
Indeed, the brothers were in fact veterans of the Great War. But, to be honest, I didn’t really understand what that meant at that age. My father was a Korean War veteran with a deep Red Foreman-ish streak, long before “That 70s Show” was a thing. Like the brothers, my father didn’t speak much about his wartime service, although I came to realize that the experience shaped much of who he was and how he viewed the world around him. Over time, I learned that much of our neighborhood was populated by veterans, spanning multiple wars over several generations. There was a deep mutual respect among them, something that I recognized long before I fully understood the meaning of “shared misery.”
As the 60s passed into the 70s, the brothers became less and less visible. By my tenth birthday, they were all in the Soldier’s Home and the little white house stood empty. The porch was bare, the flag gone, and the yard strewn with leaves. Eventually, the house was razed, replaced by another little house. The brothers were gone, but life went on.
As winter gave way to spring, and spring to summer, the veteran families of the neighborhood began to congregate once again: barbecues, the Fourth of July, camping trips. It was that first summer after my tenth birthday that I finally heard them share their stories, sitting around a campfire drinking Olympia beer out of the cooler. Their stories were not what I expected, though: the stench in a missile submarine after spending weeks under the surface, how to defecate in the middle of a firefight in Vietnam, or the intricacies of joining the Order of Neptune (something that explained a number of weird rituals my father subjected us to in our own home). They drank, they laughed, and they bonded.
It was also that summer that my father came the closest to nudging me in the direction of what was a long-held family tradition of military service. On a summer afternoon during a trip to a general store near our campground, he watched as I spun the rack of comic books around in search of something to read. I don’t remember exactly which one caught my eye, but my father gave me his best Red Foreman (again, before it was a thing) frown, muttered something mildly profane, and handed me a comic book that today hangs on the wall in my office: issue 114 of “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.” Comic books were only twenty cents in those days, but he made sure that I understood that it was “a lot of money to spend” and that it was coming out of my allowance.
That comic led to many others, some of the best war stories ever told, in my opinion. The authors of most of those comics were veterans themselves, and the genre a way to tell their own stories in their own way. My father, who held a general disdain for most comic books, never discouraged me from reading those war comics and, in fact, used them as a way to subtly share his own stories and experiences. So subtly, if fact, that it was years later before I realized that he’d used those moments to pass on life lessons. Usually with a beer in one hand, always with an annoyed look on his face and a mild profanity on his breath.
My father was a 19-year old high school dropout working on the railroad when the Korean War broke out. Three years later, his service propelled him to a second chance and provided him with social mobility that might have been denied otherwise. However, there was a deeper sense of meaning to his service, one that had been passed down through generations. For him, service was a duty, one he continued to fulfill as a Department of the Army civilian for decades. He instilled that in me, and I, in turn, passed that on to my children. Service matters, whether military service or service to the nation in some other capacity.
Work hard and good things will come.
My father had an incredible work ethic, something that he passed on to me and I’ve done my best to pass on to my children. Hard work won’t solve every problem, but it tends to get recognized. His military service transformed his life; it allowed him to go from a dirt-poor high school dropout to a first-generation college graduate and successful engineer. But none of that would have been possible without his unrivaled work ethic. He was never too proud to roll up his sleeves and get dirty, and he expected the same of those around him.
As a high school student, I began to develop a habit of giving back. I volunteered with Special Olympics. I donated gallons of blood to the Red Cross. During college, I served as a firefighter, worked with the community, and even found time to visit the elderly in the local nursing homes. I gave my time freely to others and asked nothing in return. In doing so, my father took notice and reminded me that giving back was part of what we do. When good things come your way, you give back. You share your own good fortune. It’s part of being selfless, something most veterans understand.
Never take yourself too seriously.
If military service teaches you anything, it’s the classic adage, SNAFU. You can learn to roll with the punches and laugh it off, or you can let it eat you up inside. My father’s twisted sense of humor (one he passed off to me, thank you very much) grew from of his wartime experiences, and I was his unwitting foil for many of his simple pranks (left-handed crescent wrenches, blinker fluid, etc.). For years, he warned me that parsley was poisonous and blamed my mother every time he had gas. Along the way, he taught me how to roll with the punches, to laugh when any sane person would probably scream.
Maybe my father was just stubborn. Maybe it was the knowledge that someone else was counting on him. But, no matter how you look at it, he just didn’t quit. If he started something, he finished it. “Wasting daylight” was a phrase used early and often. He would roll up his sleeves, find another gear, and keep working until the job was done. That “never say quit” attitude drove me nuts sometimes, but it also infected me at an early age.
Eventually, I became a veteran myself. Sitting with my father after returning from the Gulf War, I had never known him to be prouder. I shared my stories over Olympia beer, this time from the old garage fridge, not the Coleman camp cooler he refused to part with. We drank, we laughed, we bonded.