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
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. Wicomico
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.