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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day Requiem

One constant in life, at least in my life, is loss. As a son, I've
lost a father. And as a father, I've lost a son. So for me, today is a
reminder of both what is and what could have been. In visiting my blog,
you implicitly asked for a story. Here is one just for you:

I was born in 1955 and grew up during the 60's, tumultuous times. I
was too young to be a hippie and born too late to be part of my dad's
generation. He fought the Japanese during WWII in the islands, and
came home to tell us kids many stories. Years later, my step-mother
confided that he never talked to her about the war but that he still
had nightmares about it and often awoke screaming.

My wife Yoli's family were very close, not at all like mine. When her
family wanted to convey intense emotions, they touched and hugged each
other. When my family wanted to convey intense emotions, they yelled
and struck out at each other. I wanted very much to be part of her
family.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, my dad was 17 years old. He talked his
mother into signing the papers so that he could join the Marines. My
dad was never one for education; he dropped out of high school to
fight the good fight and never went back. He believed in work, not
schooling.

I was raised in a rural community. My dad and step mother were
children of the Depression. They expected us boys work from an early
age. I worked alongside migrant workers from Mexico every summer:
hoeing beans, de-tasseling corn, picking strawberries and asparagus,
baling hay, anything that paid a few bucks. Most all the migrants I
worked with spoke no English at all. Listening to them talk, I
gradually picked up their language quite naturally and over the years
grew to speak it fluently.

My dad was sent to Guadalcanal, Saipan, Leyte, Tinian, and a half
dozen other islands no one ever heard of before or since. His unit was
the first one into battle. My dad's company started out with one
hundred and eighty men; only two survived the end of the war. Two! Can
you imagine? My dad was wounded three times and sent back when he
recovered sufficiently. He carried pieces of shrapnel in his body
until the day he died.

We had a secret to share. Yoli had just discovered she was going to
have our baby. She was only seventeen. I was a year older. We were
stupid kids but we were going to get married and raise out baby
together. We were going to be a family. I didn't expect the news to go
over well but I never expected it to go the way it did either.

On Saipan, my dad told us about how the Japanese held out in a
concrete block bunker with slots cut for them to shoot out of. The men
in my dad's squad took turns every day lobbing their ration of hand
grenades at those slots, hoping one would go into a slot and kill the
Japanese inside to end the holdout.

When Yoli invited me to dinner that year, I didn't want to say yes but
I couldn't say no. She'd already introduced me to her family and it
hadn't gone as well as it could have. I had worn some old blue jeans
with holes in them that day. I'd been working outdoors. But that's no
excuse. So. After introductions, the first thing her father, Pete, said was:
"Yolanda, why don't you take Daniel to your brother's room. Maybe he's
got a pair of pants he can borrow."

Every night, one of the Japanese would call out: "Roosevelt eats
shit!" And directly, one the marines would call back: "Tojo eats
shit!" The shouting went on all night long. That's how close they were
to each other... close enough not only to hurl grenades but insults as
well.

As dinner progressed it soon became clear to me that it wasn't the men
who wore the pants in this family. It appeared so at first glance, but
watching the family dynamics unfold at the table, I soon understood
how mistaken I was. The men were full of bluster and fury but when a
woman spoke, the men all turned into children, seeking only to please.

One day, a buddy of my dad, just a boy, like my dad, managed to succeed
in the task. But the bunker must have been filled with large quantities of
explosives. The grenade resulted in a gigantic explosion, hurtling enormous
chunks of concrete high into the air, raining down on any poor unfortunate
soul close by. One of those chucks hit his buddy, who was hunkered down
in a fox hole, square in the face. When my dad found him, the front of the
boy's head was completely flattened.

Dinner lasted three hours. It was fabulous, especially to a kid who
ate cold Spaghettios out of a tin can with the top still attached. We
had agreed to wait until after dinner to make the announcement. Dinner
was so good I nearly forgot. But as we finished the last of the
dessert courses and people started to stir, Yoli rose and spoke.
Everyone sat down and listened to her intently. I got up and stood
beside her.

The boy asked for a cigarette, which my dad lit and placed to his
mangled lips, holding it so the boy could draw on it. Then the boy took
a ragged breath and died. A medic happened by a few minutes later and
told my dad there was no way a man could survive a wound like that.
My dad said he didn't argue with the medic. But he knew what he knew.

Her mother seemed to know what Yoli was going to say before she said
it. She said nothing; she just sat there dabbing at the corners of her
mascara-streaked eyes with a balled up napkin. Her father came up to
me and looked me in the eyes. I thought he was going to hug me but
instead he caught me with a roundhouse kidney punch that took all the
strength out of my knees and made it hard to catch my breath for a few
moments.

On Iwo Jima, they ate grasshoppers and beetles. There wasn't any clean
water to drink. The military saw fit to invade the island with no
logistical support at all... the Japanese burrowed into caves all over
the island, fighting over every square foot of that island as if it
meant something. Fierce and fearless is how he described them. The
Americans took very few prisoners; most of the Japanese soldiers died
fighting, or killed themselves when it became apparent the battle was
lost.

Yoli was expected to marry a boy from a very well to do family who
lived in the old country. She once told me that she'd met the boy only
briefly when they were both five years old and that in her family such
marriages were the rule rather than the exception. She told me - in
the old country, and even in the here and now - such marriages were
accepted ways for families, especially very wealthy families like
hers, to consolidate their power and ensure the purity of the
bloodline.

The word came down from on high to prepare for a mainland invasion of
Japan itself. The Marines would be first in. The Marines were always
first in. They all knew that most of them would die in that invasion.
Then, one day news came of a new, terribly powerful bomb that had been
dropped on a Japanese city called Hiroshima. Not long after, a second
bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. And Japan surrendered not long after.

Yoli's mother ended up giving her permission for us to marry, after
all. She said that she wanted to see what her grandchild would look
like, and that if we ran off, she might never get to see the baby. She
said she knew how in love we were by looking into her daughter's eyes.
And she said she knew what she herself would have done for such a
love.

My dad came home from the war, married my mother, raised a family, and
told his boys stories about his trials and tribulations in the
Pacific. I always thought it a pity that he preferred the spoken word
to writing as he had such good stories, and my remembrances are but
poor substitutes. My dad never knew that I had married that first
time, nor did he ever know about the grandson that he lost when Yoli
passed away given birth to our son.

My dad and my son are buried both many years and many hundreds of
miles apart. I rarely visit either of their graves... I figure all
there is there are dead bones mouldering under the good earth. I like
to think their spirits are here with me always. But of course there is
no way to know that. It's just that, sometimes, I feel them close. Or
I feel something that I can't explain, and I suppose, maybe, that is
it.

Happy Father's Day, everyone!

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