Walking with Dad in a Veterans Day dream
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Nov 11, 2012 | 485 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Rick Norton
Rick Norton
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“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”

— Jose Narosky

Argentine Writer (b. 1930)

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Reprinted from Nov. 10, 2011, Tennessee Press Association 2012 Best Personal Column

Several nights ago I dreamt of my father, an ordinary man whose individual role in the fight against the atrocious Adolph Hitler, his Nazi henchmen and The Third Reich in World War II went unsung in most corners of America.

But that was fine with him because he was a quiet man who never sought the limelight.

My father came out of that war physically unscathed, but still very much wounded. He got better — off and on — but he never fully recovered. Bad memories etched at his soul the rest of his life. They affected his health. They tortured his mind. They weighed on his family relationships. They gave birth to demons that he fought for most of my growing years.

As a boy, I didn’t always understand what was going through his head or the images that clung to his heavy heart. That too was fine with him.

“Boys don’t always have to know everything,” he once told me in my adolescence. Then I’m pretty sure he urged me to “... go peddle your oats.” It was always Dad’s way of telling me — in a loving and fatherly way — that I was getting under foot and I needed to leave him at peace.

Oddly enough, it didn’t trouble me then. It does now, but that’s because I’m older. And I understand. In some part, it’s because over the years I’ve pieced things together. In others, it’s information I gleaned from Mom in the latter years of her life before a second fight with cancer stole her from us six years ago.

Last Jan. 15 marked the 20th year since Dad’s passing. It was a family loss to us all. But his poor quality of life those last few years earned him victory in death. It was tough on Mom, my two older siblings and me. But it was for the better. Everybody knew it. In time, we even said it.

For two decades I’ve felt it sounds unloving, perhaps unappreciative and even callous, for a grown son to feel that way about his father. But if heaven has newspaper racks — and I pray it does — then I’m sure Dad is up there right now on some puffy cloud nodding in contentment at his new life while turning to the comic pages.

Dad used to read the original version of this column in the late ’70s and ’80s when I first broke into newspaper work. When my wife and I would cross the state for a long weekend visit, he’d always chuckle and ask, “Where do you get some of those ideas you write about?”

“They come from life, Dad,” I once assured him. “Life can be a pretty funny thing. You taught me that yourself. You just don’t remember.”

“I guess so,” he sighed while absentmindedly moving his pipe to the other corner of his mouth.

“I guess so” was another of his favorite expressions, especially when he didn’t fully understand — or agree with — the other person’s opinion. He used it on Mom a lot.

The man loved his pipe. It was a 40-year habit that eventually led to emphysema and an oxygen tank in his latter years. It was a life-taking vice — and he probably knew it although his defense with us kids was that he wasn’t inhaling. To this day I can still smell the sweet aroma of that Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco from the red tin he kept in his shirt pocket.

I’m not one to spend much time analyzing dreams, but I’ve had some doozies. Dad must have as well. After a fitful night of perplexing nightmares, the next morning at the breakfast table he would use the same expression: “I had some of the craziest dreams last night. You’ve never heard such!”

Probably not, Dad.

But the one I had the other night is one I hope to repeat. Because for once in my life I finally said something I should have been saying throughout my growing years, especially when I was old enough for it to hold a personal meaning ... for us both.

In the dream, Dad and I were casually strolling through the woods of north Mississippi just like we used to do when my brother and I were kids. Dad was young enough then that he still had his full mobility. In his latter years only a few steps exhausted him.

In our walk, it was only Dad and me. I was grown, no longer the carefree boy who used to love those Sunday afternoon romps in the bottomlands. It must have been autumn because we wore long sleeves and our feet shuffled noisily through layers of fallen leaves.

“I love these woods,” Dad told me in the dream. “They’re quiet. A man can think better out here.”

“I like the earthy smells,” I told him. “There’s no air like autumn air.”

He nodded.

“You still enjoyin’ your work?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” I answered. Even as a grown man, I called my Dad “sir.” It was just a part of our upbringing — always “Yes sir” and “No sir.”

“You comin’ home for Christmas?” Dad sought.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “It’s tough to get away from work, and it’s a long drive.”

“Your mother sure hopes you can be here,” he added. It was Dad’s way. What he wanted for himself was often credited to Mom’s needs.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I assured him.

“I believe we’re gonna get some snow this winter,” Dad told me. “You always liked snow when you were a boy.”

“I still do, and so do you.”

He chuckled, “I guess so.”

“Dad, you doing OK?” I asked.

“Fair to middlin’,” he answered. “Legs always hurt. Sometimes hard to breathe. But I’m makin’ it. Just gettin’ old, I guess. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” I said. “I guess we’re all getting older. Maybe that’s why I’m asking.”

“Gettin’ older’s just a part of life,” he said. Pensively, Dad then told me, “Son, there’s something I’ve been wantin’ to talk to you about. I have for years now, but it’s never been the right time.”

His voice trailed. I looked at my Dad. His words weren’t coming easily.

“Before you do, Dad, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you.”

“OK,” he complied. “You first.”

We stopped. I looked him in the eyes. They were tired eyes, almost somber and all too melancholy. Each told a story. Both held my gaze. Like tiny mirrors, they reflected a knowing image from a day gone by.

I looked down, then up again.

“... I love you, Dad,” I said.

As his eyes watered, I awoke.

Not a Veterans Day goes by that I don’t think of my father.

This one is the sweetest of all ... because I finally told him.

Even if just in a dream.