It happens every year.
It will happen again next year and the year after and the year after that.
This time of remembrance, a much deserved recognition of America’s unsung, is a faithful reminder of this truth: When a son doesn’t ask his father about his time in war, it is lost opportunity. The unspoken questions signal the emptiness of an unfelt bond.
In his younger years, and in mine, this lack of sharing was by mutual consent. Dad wanted no talk of his time as a soldier in World War II. And as a self-absorbed teen, I was quick to oblige. I had little interest. Ignorance of a past generation was my game. Silence was his ally.
So neither made the effort.
I recall days when Mom would remind my older brother and sister, and me, “... don’t pester your daddy with questions about that war.” Maybe these subtle warnings came on bad days. I can’t say for sure. I didn’t ask and she didn’t tell.
And it remained that way for as long as I remember while living at home. But times changed. I grew older, as did Dad.
When I was a high school senior, I remember he once ... almost ... opened up. It was because of me. And maybe it was for me. We sat at the supper table, our dirty dishes still sitting before us. Mom had left the kitchen, probably to rest her aching back on the living room couch, her pain the result of a day of standing on the concrete floor of the high school cafeteria.
My parents were blue collar workers their entire lives. I didn’t appreciate it in youth 40 years ago. I do now.
Kids think they know everything; at least, I guess I did. For whatever reason, our slow conversation that night at the table wandered to war. I must have been quoting something learned in school because I made the bold statement that the atomic bombs should never have been dropped on Japan.
“Too many innocent people died,” I probably said, referring to the American nukes that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Surely there was another way. I mean, we had already beaten Mussolini and Hitler. The war was practically over. Why kill people by the hundreds of thousands?”
The pain returned to Dad’s eyes. It was the same pain I had seen before ... during those occasional exchanges when somebody did mention World War II, whether by accident or in idle curiosity.
I knew better. But teenaged boys don’t always think before they speak. I certainly did not on this evening.
But Dad was a calm sort. He was always slow to anger. The man had the patience of Job, even in the face of an intolerant teen. He said very little in response to my bold assertion. Yet his eyes spoke like a storybook. He was reliving every day of that bloody fight against Hitler and his fascist Nazi regime.
It was about then I recalled another comment Mom once made on a prior day. “Your daddy was on a ship headed for Japan when those bombs were dropped,” she told me. She probably added something like, “That was after he had already helped to beat Hitler in Europe. And now he was being asked to fight again.”
It was her way of saying, “Give your father a break. Give him some peace. Heaven knows, he earned it.”
At the supper table that night, Dad had every right to remind me of Pearl Harbor. He did not. He had the chance to lecture me on the realities of war. He did not. He could have spoken of the murder of 6 million Jews in Poland, Austria and Germany. He did not.
Dad just sat quietly, his eyes an ocean away.
“They had to drop those bombs, son ... too many more people would’a died if they didn’t,” he finally offered, in barely more than a whisper. “Nobody wanted it ... but it had to be.”
I’m not sure our eyes ever met. It wasn’t our finest moment. No mention of that war ever was; at least, not while I looked at life through eyes that could not see.
It wasn’t our last talk of the war. But the next wouldn’t come until years later. Then, I was a man. And I looked into my father’s eyes as we sat at another kitchen table, our conversation subdued ... our glances knowing.
The pain in those tired eyes reappeared and this time it reached out to the grown man who faced him from across the table just an arm’s length away — an understanding and appreciative son, yet one who still fell short of saying what his father most needed to hear.
Like thousands of other American soldiers, Dad was a casualty of war.
I didn’t consider it as a kid. I understand it now.
An uncle, Dad’s elder brother who fought in that same war, once told me, “Your daddy’s a good man. He earned his silence. You’ll realize that when you get older.”
Seasons have come and gone. Years have floated away like driftwood. Much has changed.
Now I am older.
And I do understand.
It is why I think of Dad at Veterans Day. It is when I remember him with a smile. It is when I love him the most.
If I had a son of my own, I would tell him Monday at the kitchen table, “Your grandfather was a good man. He earned his silence.”
I would then seek his eyes, revealing my pain.
And I would think back on those unspoken questions from a life gone by.