“The brave men and women who serve their country, and as a result live constantly with the war inside them, exist in a world of chaos. But the turmoil they experience isn’t who they are; the PTSD …
It was a good dream.
It served as an outlet, one that opened a long-closed door between a young man and his aging father, both of whom had strong views in their earlier years and neither of whom understood how to seek a middle ground.
So they didn’t try … until the boy became a man, and he began to see the world through his father’s eyes. Still, one never learned how to express his love for the other, and the gap grew even wider.
And then came that dream. The boy, now a man, finally told his dad what both had felt all along, yet neither could muster the courage nor the words.
“I love you, Dad,” the young man offered during a casual stroll in the woods, the crisp air of autumn as titillating as the rainbow layer of fallen leaves that blanketed the forest floor.
They were my words. It was my dream. He was my dad. And finally, after so very many years, I had said what should have been said such a long, long time ago.
Surprisingly moved by that dream, I wrote about it … in this same column space. Since, I’ve written of my dad many times, and often it has come during our community’s Veterans Day observance.
Early last week I thought of my dad again. I wondered how he would feel about today’s society, one that appears headed for some of the same breakdowns that defined our America of long ago … seemingly one whose right to self-destruct is protected by our Constitution, a sacred document defended for generations by courageous men and women in uniform.
So I met with him, not in a dream like before but in my mind. In this imaginary world, Dad and I talked … in one of our favorite spots, across the small rectangular table drinking coffee in Mom’s kitchen. He sat on one side, I on the other, little more than the stretch of an arm between us.
This would have been a kitchen from the latter half of the 1980s, in a modest home in Columbia, Tennessee, not more than a few blocks from the banks of the treacherous Duck River.
Dad died a year after the Duck’s floodwaters had overtaken the house the first time, sometime along the cold midwinter of 1991. So in this daydream we had 26 years of catching up to do, but I was most interested in just the last few.
“Dad, having been a soldier in the war and all, it’ll probably disappoint you to know some people — not all people, just some — are losing respect for what used to be something very special in this country,” I offered, almost in a stutter.
“I guess I don’t follow you, Son,” he said. “I don’t keep up with the news much any more.”
“Just a few years ago, we started having street protests again … about race,” I explained. “Seemed like every time you turned around there was another shooting … in many cases involving white police officers and black men.”
“Race has been an eyesore for this country for a long time,” Dad said. “I’ve wrestled with some of my own views, as well. But I’ve simmered over time. You’re as much a part of that as anything.”
“Me? How’s that?”
“In high school, you had black friends,” he recalled. “Some were your buddies. When I was that young, there was no going to school together. They kept us apart. So in a way, you opened my eyes.”
He added, “So you’re tellin’ me there’s race protests again, like in the ‘60s?”
“Not as many, but the fuel is still there,” I said. “Nowadays, to make their point about racism, inequality and some other stuff, professional athletes — mostly in the NFL — are sitting, or kneeling, through the national anthem. Some people say it’s disrespectful, not just to the country but to the veterans who fought in the wars.”
Dad’s expression didn’t change. He sat motionless for a minute, looking down at his coffee, then out the kitchen window across the way, and back to the coffee. He took a sip. Always slow to judge, it was just Dad’s way.
“How do you feel about it?” he asked.
Unprepared for the question, it was his views I wanted … not mine.
“I can see both sides,” I mustered. “I like the idea that these guys want to make a point … but I don’t like the method. The way I see it … is there’s no need to disrespect the American flag or the veterans who keep it flying. Surely there’s another way.”
“What would you suggest?”
Dad was reversing ours roles. I wanted his opinion … as a former soldier, but he wanted mine … because I was his son.
“Something that would make the point, but not hurt so many people,” I offered. “Public speeches. Press conferences. Advertising in newspapers across the country. Radio and TV interviews. School assemblies. Just anything to get your message out, but without adding insult.”
I added, “That’s just one of the problems in our country today, Dad. Nobody can just disagree. There is no longer such a thing as ‘my’ opinion and ‘your’ opinion, and let’s find some compromise. Now, it’s my way or the highway. It’s nothing but sheer intolerance … especially in politics.”
Dad sat quietly, his tired eyes again looking to the porcelain cup, a small chip etched into its lip. Stained light brown on the inside from years of use, the cup had weathered the ages … just like my dad.
In life, his expression often seemed pained, just as it was now. Since the war, Dad had dealt with many unseen burdens … far more than his due. Sometimes the hurt was physical, other times much deeper.
Impatient for an answer, I spoke again.
“So as a veteran, this doesn’t really bother you … the kneeling during the anthem, all that … stuff?”
“I didn’t say it didn’t bother me,” he answered. “I just guess that’s what freedom is all about. In America, everybody has rights.”
“But Dad, you could have died in that war … protecting this country and our way of life.”
“I was just doing my job,” Dad agreed. “But none of the rest is up to me.”
Hesitating, fingering the curved handle of my own cup, I looked at my father.
“So who’s it up to?”
His unblinking gray eyes looked into my own.
“You’re the newspaperman. You figure it out, and then you make some sense of it … for the rest of us.”
Dad was always a man of few words. It was just his way.
A good soldier and a better man, Dad never claimed to have all the answers. And 25 years later, I still struggle to make sense of it all ... to do as he asked.
But when I do, and if I do, he will be the first to know … even if it’s just in a dream.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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