My father’s hands always trembled and his head always shook. Once, as a child, I asked him why. He said, with a sly grin, “Must be those bad Simpson genes.” He was totally deaf in his left ear. Again, if asked, he gave the same response.
I learned at an early age to gauge my father’s state of mind by the degree of his tremors, sort of an emotional Richter’s Scale. Quick to laugh but also quick-tempered, he almost never erupted at his family. Instead, if upset or angered, he would step out onto the porch and smoke a cigarette.
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One day I found a samurai sword in the back of a closet in our small farm house. When I asked him about it he didn’t answer. When pressed, his tremors increased and I knew to back off. The same thing happened later when I found an old shaving kit full of black & white photographs of my father and other young men, all dressed in military uniforms. Over the years I accepted the fact that my father would never talk about his war so I quit asking.
I was born into a house without a telephone, television or air conditioning. In the Deep South, the AC is what you miss the most. My father struggled to make ends meet for his family on our small farm in the hill country of Mississippi, in spite of the fact he worked from can ‘til can’t. I remember him coming home at dusk after working all day as hired labor on another farm to eat a quick meal before heading to our barn. Late at night I would watch the headlights of our small tractor as it crossed the fields.
One year he made a deal to plow and plant some land that a local physician owned. He miscalculated the cost and wound up losing money, money we could ill afford to lose, but he kept his word and finished the job. To make up for the loss, he just worked harder.
Another time my mother wanted to buy a set of encyclopedias for my sister and me. My parents knew we couldn’t afford them, they both said so frequently as they discussed the matter. This was a major expenditure for our household and after they talked I knew we wouldn’t be getting the books, but a few weeks later a heavy box arrived. You know what it contained.
Something changed when I was about ten years old. I found out later that the doctor had prescribed a new medicine for my father, a drug called Valium. My father took a job with an insurance company. We sold the farm (Hallelujah!). We built a new house – it was HUGE, almost 2000 square feet, and, best of all, it had central air and heat. Very quickly my father worked the family up into the lower middle class.
But on weekends, when he intentionally refused to take his medication, the shakes would return, sometimes to the degree that he couldn’t sign his name legibly.
While packing up after college I found an American flag lying on a trash heap at the curb. It was old and tattered but clean, so I used it to wrap some of my things. Later, my father helped me move to the small house I rented when I started dental school. As I unpacked, I threw the old wrappings and empty boxes into a pile. When I got to the flag, I did the same thing.
Then my father walked into the room. He asked about the flag. I told him how I had found it and, honestly, I didn’t think much about it. I was a child of the 60’s and 70’s, I had seen flags burning on the nightly news for years, seen National Guard troops shoot students at Kent State, seen our president resign because he was a bone-deep liar and a crook.
“You shouldn’t treat the flag that way,” he said in a quiet voice.
“I found it in the trash,” I repeated.
“You shouldn’t do that. I’ve seen too many good men die for that flag.”
He turned and walked out. I watched him through the window as he walked around the back yard, his tremors subsiding as he smoked. I took the flag, folded it, and set it on a bookcase.
Years later I was sitting with him on his patio at home. In spite of the August heat, he was fully dressed with a robe for extra warmth. His hair was sparse due to the chemo and he struggled to breathe even with the oxygen tube clipped to his nose.
He talked about many things – how he wanted his estate handled, things he wanted me to do for my mother and my disabled sister, things he wanted me to tell my young children.
“I’ve had a good life. I’ve been blessed,” he said.
Then he said something that surprised me.
“The sea off the shore of Iwo Jima was filled with more ships than I thought was possible.”
He proceeded to tell me about his war. It was an unvarnished, unflinching narrative. He hit the beach early in the afternoon of the first day of the invasion. He had originally been slated to go in on the third day but there had been more casualties than expected. He was a naval radio operator assigned to the command center on Yellow Beach, the center of the beachhead.
He told of chaos, of the dying and the dead, the screams of agony, the rain of bullets, mortar shells the size of small cars exploding, the sound a dead body makes when it is run over by a tank, the sound a live soldier makes when he is run over by a tank, the scraps of human flesh and body parts flying, the sprays of blood, the smell of eviscerated bowel and burning flesh, but the overlying smell was the sulfurous stench of the volcanic island itself. For some reason his mind flashed back to an old country preacher he had heard who pounded the pulpit while warning of fire and brimstone.
“And I knew I had arrived in Hell,” he said.
Around midnight the command post took a direct hit from the shelling. A lot of the officers were killed. My father was lucky, by some miracle he only had his eardrum blown out by the concussion of the blast that lifted him up and threw him down the beach. When he stumbled back to the command post, he located a working radio and informed his superiors out at sea of the situation. Because of the chaos Yellow Beach was shut down until daylight. My father’s orders: Dig in and stand by the radio.
So he dug in as the shells kept falling…and falling…and falling. But he couldn’t just burrow and hide. Enemy soldiers were entering the sea above the beachhead. They would float with the current until they reached the American line, then sneak out of the surf and attack from behind. My father spent the night burrowing into his foxhole, digging himself out after artillery fire buried him under the choking sand, then popping up to check the shoreline for the enemy.
“I’ve never been more surprised in my life,” he said.
“That I was still alive when the sun came up.”
My father paused to catch his breath. I sat in silence as I watched his tremors kick up another notch.
“I couldn’t understand all the ropes,” he said. “It was the ropes that got me.”
“The ropes?” I asked, thinking I had misunderstood him.
“Yea, the ropes. They had shut Yellow Beach down. There hadn’t been transports unloading supplies but the ropes that lashed the boxes and crates together were everywhere, as if the unloading had continued all night. They were everywhere. I thought they were ropes.”
Until he stepped on one. The ropes were human intestines.
Days later, when the American flag went up on Mt. Suribachi, the beach erupted in celebration. The ships offshore joined in by ringing the ship’s bells and blowing their horns.
“And that was the first time since I had set foot on the island that I thought I had a chance to one day go home.”
He talked for a while longer about Iwo, about the Kamikaze blooms off of Okinawa, how he got busted down to third class for taking a jeep without authorization to visit the gravesite of a close friend, about the end of the war.
After the war the service tried to give him disability for his shell shock. He refused. The argument with the doctor grew heated. My father was adamant. He could look around the hospital and see the disabled, men in worse shape than himself. He still had both eyes, he still had one good ear, he could walk, he could work. It didn’t seem right.
“Well, you can’t argue about the deafness,” the doctor replied and gave him a partial disability over my father’s objections. So my father finally got to return home.
“I had a lot of trouble adjusting,” was all he said before he asked me to help him back into the house.
Three weeks later he died. His coffin was draped with the flag of the United States.
Years later my uncle told me that my father tried to go to college on the G.I. bill but at night, in his dorm, the younger students would shoot off fireworks and he would roll out of his bunk and hit the floor. He left college before the end of his first semester, leaving the youngsters to wonder why the “Old Man” was so upset about a little harmless fun. I think that missed opportunity was the reason he always stressed the importance of education. He backed his words with financial support to help me earn two degrees, both with honors.
I did not add that last point to brag, only to emphasize a point. I learned a lot in the classroom; I learned a lot more from my father.
My father wasn’t perfect-far from it- but most of my success resulted from the seeds he sowed, most of my failures because I strayed from his example. He instilled in me a good work ethic. He taught me about sacrifice, self-reliance, and perseverance. He taught me the importance of a good attitude, the power of gratitude, and the futility of complaint, that it is better to grin than to grimace. That laughter is like sunlight in its ability to banish the shadows that try to creep into our lives. That each day is a gift.
And he taught me about flags.
We are entering Flag Season, the time from Memorial Day through Flag Day and on to the Fourth of July. Flags will pop up like daffodils in the spring – one day they are scarce, the next they are everywhere. Some will see Old Glory and be filled with pride, some will see the Red, White, and Blue and grumble about all that is wrong with our country, and some will simply overlook them. Some will think of loved ones that gave the last full measure of devotion for their country, or perhaps think of those that survived their service but also made sacrifices, sacrifices of many and varied degrees with scars visible or unseen. Some will think of loved ones overseas and some overseas will, like my father, think of home.
I know what I will think.