My father didn’t cry.
He didn’t believe in it; he didn’t like what he called those “weak, goddamn emotions.” When I was a toddler I swallowed paint thinner as my parents were busy (and distracted) painting our house. My father silenced my mother’s tears as he rushed us in the truck to the hospital. “Stop your crying!” he ordered her. “It’s too late for crying!”
And she stopped.
We all learned to stop. We followed his lead, replacing tears with strength, courage, and many times anger. He was a good role model, and we followed his command.
I only saw him cry once.
I didn’t actually witness it – it happened in a phone call. And maybe that’s why it happened at all. Somehow it was safer that way. There was distance, and a kind of privacy. I couldn’t actually see his tears. I only heard the pain, the catch in his voice, the hard sobbing at the other end of the line. I was confused, and lost by those sounds. One minute he was my father, and we were talking. And then, without warning, he was crying – inconsolable and without words. And I wondered: who was this man at the other end of the phone?
It was a PBS program we were watching – that’s what started it: a documentary about World War II and the infantry. Dad was infantry – he landed at Omaha Beach “90 days plus” – 90 days after the big invasion. They were given rifles left over from D-Day that were covered in dried blood. He was injured the first night he arrived at the front – a face wound that sent him back to England. It kept him there long enough to miss the bloodiest days of the Battle of the Bulge. I knew these things about my father. We shared this war together, the two of us – his tomboy of a daughter who used to dress up in his Army reserve fatigues just to feel closer to him. I could always have a conversation with Dad if I asked him about the war. Nothing too personal, no “gut” questions, just “Where did you train?” “What countries did you see?” “How old were you?” Name, rank, and serial number, but nothing deeper.
The PBS show that spring evening, with me 100 miles away and settled in my life, was a part of that sharing. I called him as soon as I saw that World War II program listed on PBS. He knew about it and yes, he was planning to watch it. We had a date to talk after the credits had rolled. I called him after the show before he could even dial my number. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe if I had waited, he would have had some time, a moment to right himself, to hold steady the course.
“What’d you think? Did you like it?” I asked him.
He proceeded to tell me, clinically, objectively.
“Pretty good,” he admitted. “Some of the stuff they get wrong,” he wanted me to know. “It’s not like the movies,” he told me. “It’s not like they’re shooting all the time,” he explained to me. “Sometimes, it just happens.”
I didn’t have time to ask him what he meant – he just kept talking.
“There was one guy from Portland, Oregon. I met him in a bunker. It was about 30 feet wide, a concrete pillbox on the Siegfried line. The Germans had built it – the concrete was very thick. We slept in there one night, four or five hours. At about four o’clock in the morning I had to get up with this Portland guy – there was an entrance into the bunker and we had to guard it while the other guys inside slept. The two of us, that was our job. So of course we started talking, you talk to keep yourself awake. He was from Portland. We stayed on guard maybe for a couple hours, talking about different things. So early in the morning, after our guard duty was over, we all got out of the bunker because we had to go to another place. They never tell you where you’re going. You just got to go there and set up for whatever you’re going to do. So we’re walking to different places, and I’m digging a goddamn hole at all of these places, and then all of a sudden they tell us they’re taking us in another direction. That’s what happens in combat: just when you get settled, they change their mind. Something changes. So we go down into this little town, and you can see these big mines in the ground for tanks. And then, all of a sudden, they change their mind again – the head honchos are making judgment calls, see? And you got nothing to say about it, you just go and do what they tell you. So we move back to the area where we were that morning and we came to this ridge, and there’s only two guys in front of me. There’s an officer and we have to pass the officer, and he says, “Keep going until you get hit.” That’s what he says to us. And he tells us, unlock your rifle and fire at will. So we came out of this little brush area, these two guys and me – this one guy that was on guard duty with me – Portland. He goes off to the right, and this guy who was in front of me went to the left. I figured I had no other way to go – I had to go with one of them. So I went with the guy who went to the left. I turned down the hill with him. I don’t know what happened…I found out the next day. That night I saw the guy laying on the ground all night long. But nobody went to see him or anything.”
He stopped talking.
A catch in his voice,
There was a silence that ended in sobs.
I waited for him, wanting to comfort but not knowing how.
“He had been hit, a shell came there and hit him. That guy from Portland.”
He cried, and I let him. I don’t remember saying one word, just listening to him cry. So many years had passed and this story had never been told. He was finally telling it, finally able to find the words.
“I don’t know…why? Why him and not me?” he asked. “Why was my life saved and not his? Why did I go right and live, and not go left and die?”
I didn’t have the answer for him. I don’t know if there is an answer. But I think the question is something he had waited his whole life to ask.
I didn’t understand the significance of my Dad sharing this with me until I started writing this story. My father spent his whole life focused on working hard for his family. It wasn’t enough just to have a job 9 to 5; he was filled with a quest to do big things, to buy land, to build, to make a fortune, to have a purpose in life. He was an ironworker driven to succeed in a way he only knew as success – to build a legacy for his family.
And that meant no crying.
No tears, or feeling weakness, or regret. You dig the holes, you do your job, and above all else, you don’t make friends. My father had many men who called him a friend, but he never sought their friendship, never let them in. I used to ask him, “Dad, why don’t you go out to lunch with that guy when he asks you?” or “How come you and Mom don’t go to dinner with friends like other people do?” He’d just keep his eyes centered on the television program he was watching and say to me, “I’m not built that way.”
Maybe that’s what saved his life.
He had a choice to go to the right with Portland – the guy who sat up with him late at night, talking about everything, sharing hopes and dreams, and maybe some fears too. You don’t get any closer than sharing late night guard duty outside a bunker in the middle of a war. Why didn’t Dad go to the right with Portland instead of off to the left with another soldier he barely knew? No wonder he never wanted to have close friends. When you get too close and they get hit by a shell, you get hit too.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I will think of that soldier – Portland. I’ll wonder what his real name was, what kind of family he came from, and what he wanted to do with this life. On Memorial Day, I will put a little American flag on the grave of my father, and wonder if anyone is doing the same for Portland. This year I will think of all the soldiers who didn’t make it home. But I’ll also be thinking of those who did return – changed, and with parts of themselves buried deeply, as deeply as those soldiers who never returned.