Friday, November 11, 2005

#90 - Happy (And I Mean That) Veterans Day!

Dad was a veteran.

Dad served in two branches of the service. He joined the Army as soon as he was barely legal, but WWII was already winding down. When the Korea "conflict" appeared, Dad re-enlisted, this time in the Air Force. He was a horn player, which meant serving in the band. He ended his tour of duty as a Tech Sgt. with commendations.

Dad never talked much about his experiences in the service. Perhaps his never having seen action somehow, in his mind, diminished the importance of his having served at all. Let's face it, military horn players don't see action unless they're stationed on an aircraft carrier. Wing-wipers don't serve on carriers.

Truth be told, however, I suspect the real reasons for Dad's reticence lie with the fact that, in his heart of hearts, Dad was a pacifist.

Now, you'd never have known that if you ever worked with him professionally. I used to think the stories he told us around the dinner table when I was young were just a load of hooey. The Old Man wants us to believe that he has his bosses so cowed that they pretty much let him get away with anything. Then I went to work there and had opportunity to chat with some of the subjects of Dad's stories. They were true. In fact, his nickname at work was "Mean Deane." He was in Contract Compliance for a goodly portion of his career. You didn't place significant purchase orders without going through him first. I joked with a few folks that Dad had two trash cans in his office. One labelled "Buyer Case Files," the other labelled "Buyers." Not many buyers laughed at that one.

I sat in more than one meeting where Dad lambasted senior managers with more clout and seniority than he had. Dad could easily have coined the term "stuck on stupid" with certain executives that, in Dad's opinion, should have crawled back into the mud whence they sprang. He had no patience with or tolerance for stupidity. He was death to anyone found guilty of trying - even inadvertently - to defraud our customers.

Nor would you have seen Dad's pacifism if you saw him with cats. Dad was always a dog man himself, and cats were merely dog food. Worse than that, they were evil little pooping machines that saw Dad's lawn as their own personal litter box. Or were overly interested in the birds we kept in a poorly designed aviary in the backyard. That's when Dad got the air pistol. I'm not sure how many times he actually used it, since Dad was the world's greatest armchair everyman. Still, there were a few shell-shocked felines around the neighborhood before that pistol got retired.

Because Dad was such a gruff character, we kids also would have found the idea of his latent pacifism to be a colossal joke. Many's the time I muttered under my breath that I would never - EVER - become the kind of Dad I had. You already know the punch line of that joke.

It wasn't until Dad talked about gun control one day that I began to understand this side of him. I believe it was during the debates for the Brady bill that the subject arose. I was, by that time, a married adult beginning to build my own family. I was pretty firmly on the side of the Second Amendment, and was watching a snippet of a news item on the TV with Dad. I remember snorting a little and saying something about leaving the NRA alone, for Pete's sake. Dad cocked an eyebrow in my direction (this was his favorite method of communicating with us) and, without taking his eyes off the television, said, "Oh, I don't know. I'm about ready to believe that they need to get rid of the handguns."

That one statement caught me by surprise and caused me to reflect seriously on this man I thought I knew. I thought back through my childhood and found memory after memory where Dad chose to pacify rather than bully. These memories were out of place with my concept of Dad and everything I thought he represented. There was, for instance, the time that he and I were breaking in new hiking boots. We were planning to take a hike in the Sespe Creek area north of our home, and we decided to hike along old Los Angeles Avenue leading out toward Moorpark, years before Easy Street took over most of that real estate. It was definitely a rural area, and we lived right on the edge of it. As we hiked along the road, a bedraggled cat appeared out of nowhere, caterwauling at the top of its lungs, and moving in our direction. I wondered how Dad might react. He had a worried look on his face. This didn't square with my previous experiences at all; I fully expected Dad to find a big stick and turn the cat into Coyote Chow. Instead, he waited until the cat was close enough, got the toe of his boot under its belly and sent it sprawling back across the street into the brush. He knew what I was thinking, and explained to me that he was worried that the cat might be rabid. This was his way of making sure the cat was no immediate threat to us, and we continued our hike unmolested.

I also remembered a horn student of Dad's. This young man did not, unfortunately, have a lot of talent. Dad worked with him pretty faithfully for a number of months, but the progress he was expecting just wasn't there. This young man was in high school. As a senior, he had registered for the draft. He knew he would be drafted as the Vietnam War was still in full swing then. His plan was to apply for one of the bands so he wouldn't see action. Dad tried to help him understand that he would need much greater skills as a musician to be successful, and that failure to make it in the band would mean being sent wherever the military deemed necessary. Of course, the young man didn't make it. He was sent into combat and, if memory serves, died some months later. Dad was devastated. I'd never seen this side of Dad before, and, as I say, didn't square with how I perceived him.

As an adult looking back, and seeing Dad in that light, I began to realize that Dad really didn't want to hurt anyone. If he was crotchety with his kids or his associates, well, that was just his personality. After Dad died, his bishop told Mom that Dad was probably already auditing St. Peter's books. He had been serving as an auditor for the Stake when he passed away. There are reasons for his curmudgeonry, but they're not for this essay.

Dad helped me understand that some things are worth fighting for, and others can be accepted as a fact of life, even when we don't agree with them. He was a veteran of more conflicts than I ever hope to see in my life. Not necessarily the conflicts of war and terror, but the everyday conflicts that shape who we are and what we achieve. Dad's greatest achievement, then, was his own personal integrity. I can only hope that I find the means and inner strength to measure up to that. Someday.

Happy Veterans Day, Dad. We love you.

P.S. And a Happy Veterans Day to my son-in-law, who serves in the Air Force and provides a good living for my daughter and granddaughter. We love you, too!

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