Friday, May 26, 2017

Dad and Memorial Day

            This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and, as I out walking Grace, my thoughts turned to Dad.  Though I have never thought of him as a traditional military man, nevertheless, in the past few years I have thought about his relationship to the military when this holiday has rolled around.  This morning, however, something struck me that had never occurred to me before.  Perhaps it is because I am now looking at him from the vantage point of someone who is 71 years old.  I have always known that Dad was in the Navy for twenty years.  As a child, twenty years sounded like an incredibly long time – a lifetime, really.  The thing that struck me this morning, though, was how terribly young Dad was when he got out of the Navy after serving 20 years.  He was only 38, Maya’s age!
            Realizing how young he was when he came out of the service was a jolt to me.  Essentially, he had his whole life ahead of him.  It also put his life in a different light for me.  He was only 21 when he was at Pearl Harbor and when he saw all of the fighting from the ships.  His tales of being up in the Aleutian Islands (the foggiest place he had ever been) and in Australia were really a young man’s tales. He was, in effect, much like those young men who went away to Vietnam or, how, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and return, damaged, having witnessed the atrocities of war.
            I bring this up because it is commonplace now to hear of men (and now women) who return to society and just cannot fit in and I wonder just how much psychological damage was done to him.  My first impulse is to want to blame war and the military.  I want to ask the question, what kind of person would he have been, what would he have made of himself, if the war had not come along.
            There is a list put out by Wicomico High School honoring all of its attendees who served in the military.  On that list are Dad and four of his five brothers – John, Robert, Peyton, and Colvin. (Byers could not join because he was legally blind.)  I’d always assumed that because Dad was the second youngest of the boys in his family, he had joined the military because it was a family tradition, but over the past few years in doing family research, I’ve discovered that was the first in his immediate family to join and, for me, that puts a different perspective on things. 
            I ask myself, what kind of life Dad would have had if he had not joined the Navy and, before I put too much blame on the military, I have to look at the context.  Dad was orphaned by the time he was eleven.  He grew up with unofficial foster parents.  The town that he lived in was a backwater town of small time fishermen and farmers who were trying to make a living in the wake of changes wrought by the Civil War. None of his brothers seems to have prospered. Alcoholism was a family curse, several of his brothers were childless or had unhappy marriages. One committed suicide. Given those circumstances, would Dad have turned out any differently?
            Still, Dad’s foster father seems to have been involved in education. Dad graduated valedictorian from his class and, according to what he told me when I was young, got a year’s scholarship to attend William and Mary – something unheard of in his family. I distantly recall Dad’s saying that he did not attend college because even with the scholarship he could not have afforded it. Was Dad really joining the Navy simply as an act of patriotism or was it because he saw it as his way out of a life that the rest of his family seemed consigned to?  We’ll never know the answer.

            What I do realize now is how terribly young he was even after serving twenty years in the Navy.  I can only repeat the cliché, “He had his whole life ahead of him.”  But really, did he?  Given the background that he had, the damage done to him by the war and military culture, and the fact that he now had five children to support, what real choices did he have?  Free will is basically a fiction.  Once the machinery of life is in motion, it has a force of its own.  I doubt any of us now are where, at eighteen, we thought we would be. Paths lead to other paths and where our footsteps finally end is anyone’s guess.  

6 comments:

Maya Northen said...

This is a really interesting post. I too, never thought of how young he was when he got out of the military. But I also didn't know him until he was older, naturally, so that might be why. He seemed to always be that age, somehow. He seemed to have always had an old soul, though I think that must in part be due to how much he experienced at a young age.

Another thought of course is that if he hadn't joined the military, he most likely wouldn't have met grandma, unless he happened to for some reason still head out to California. Which naturally would have changed the course of the whole family's life (i.e. we wouldn't be here/at least who we are today). But I tend to agree with you. Certain people are tended towards certain paths of life, personalities, or afflictions, for lack of a better term. Perhaps had he gone to William and Mary on a scholarship his life would have turned out different, but it doesn't necessarily mean *he* would have turned out different - just his external circumstances.

On the flip side, putting on my advocacy hat for a moment, transition back into "every day life" is still something that is horrendously lacking for those who come home from the military, and there is still an incredibly high rate of untreated or under-treated PTSD and other disorders, including addictive ones, in veterans. So perhaps it was a combination of his circumstances, his genetics, and the military. It's interesting to consider.

Maura said...

To continue along these thoughts, how much would his (and consequently his family's) life been different if he had exited the Navy in the current era rather than when he did. Now that PTSD is recognized and and alcoholisim is concidered a disease I hope people with these issues will have an easier time getting needed help. It is funny how society tends to refer to the "good old days" but there were so many more hardships in the 40s, 50s and so on then their are today (not that many people are not still experiencing hardship).

An interesting connection that I just made is that Dan's grandfather was a soldier in the German army during WWII. He spent time fighting in Russia and returned home to his wife and six kids and reportedly was never the same. Two men from two different sides of the war who both came home with PTSD to support large families.

Melissa Rachel said...

I'm almost just as shocked to think about how incredibly young he was when he entered the military. Legally, that is adulthood. But, it is most certainly not the age of emotionally maturity. Boys going into the military have so much to handle emotionally and some are even still not a physical maturity. The brain doesn't reach full maturity until we are in our 20's and teens are much more susceptible to drug, alcohol and nicotine addiction because of this. I don't think anyone is born suited to hand this type of stress and trauma, but it is much more intense to grow into adulthood during the process.

EMMLP said...

Maura, I'd be interested in hearing more of the story about Dan's grandfather. You'll have to have Dan tell me about it some time.

ednorthen said...

Interesting thoughts Mike, I have been thinking about Dad as well lately and role that the military played in his life. I think for Dad the Navy meant opportunity, a chance to get out of the town and life he had lived in and start a new life. I don’t think dad joined the Navy to be patriotic and he did no waved the flag of patriotism or promoted it. A few times I heard him speak a few words about the tragedy of war but other than that we never had a conversation about war. I don’t know what he thought about the war in Vietnam? Mike you probably have a better knowledge of that than I do.

I think that the military did provide dad a way to survive the responsibilities of being a husband and father. I say this because it seemed dad could only handle the pressures and responsibility of family for a limited period of time. He would start drinking and then leave. Mom always took him back and it was like a reset then he would repeat his behavior. Being in the Navy and away on missions and tours gave dad the break or reset that he needed from the pressures of family. I don’t think there was a time when he was in the Navy where left the family. I know Dad was drinking while in the Navy and that alcohol, gambling and debt, resulted in actions which affected his naval career. When Dad got out of the Navy he really had no direction, or goals or career plans, so he just landed into a society he was unprepared for. He also carried the psychological weight of the wars and all that had happened to him in life so far. He loved his family but it was almost as if he lived life without hope for a better future, he could only live in the present moment of time. That said once he quit drinking and all the kids were adults mom and dad seemed to settle down to a content life together. I have always thought it sad that dad did not live longer to enjoy those years together with.

EMMLP said...

Ed, I think that you are exactly right about the military providing a way for Dad to survive the responsibilities of being a husband and father. Although Dad was a very calm person on the surface, I think that he could not take a lot of the pressure. I know Dad loved us and enjoyed being with us. He was proud of his family, but at the same time having to be away also gave him the space that he needed to be able to handle the role. It was also security. Though the gambling and drinking was apparently long-standing, his leaving never really started until he was out of the Navy and had to face the prospect of being someone with few skills trying to find a job that would support a family and five kids. With its steady income, the Navy had shielded him from that pressure. As I write this, though, it makes it sound as though we must have had a terrible upbringing, but really, I never felt that way at all. Dad was always good to us and, when he was around, to Mom. I never saw him take a drink in my life or ever saw him drunk. In fact, there was never alcohol in our house.