A Voice from the Past

The title page of my father’s 1949 essay for English 102 at Dartmouth.

It was last week, on the three-and-a-half-year anniversary of my father’s passing, that I learned a whole lot more about the guy than I’d known before.

During the summer after he died, in 2016, I’d gone through the house that he and my mother had retired to back at the turn of the century. They’d brought with them all of the stuff they’d accumulated in forty-plus years together: multiple households’ worth of furniture, books, kitchen items, clothes and just plain riprap that their borderline-hoarder natures led them to keep. That they’d grown up poor during and just after the Great Depression meant they rarely jettisoned anything that might, just might, be useful at some point. Dad, for instance, kept countless empty, clean peanut butter jars in a cabinet because who knows when you might need a screw-top container? Several china sets that I’d never cast eyes upon let alone seen used on a table, clothes that hadn’t been worn in decades and bookshelves full of VHS tapes — Mom and Dad held on to everything.

And it was a lot. Mom died suddenly in October 2012 and Dad’s travails began three weeks later when he broke his hip while walking from the kitchen to the dining room. Because of his untimely injury and resulting frailty, my father had never been able to go through Mom’s stuff properly. And, of course, there were his own accumulations as well. So I did a big purge that summer of 2016; I even rented a dumpster that sat in the driveway while I filled it for a couple of weeks.

But there was also a lot of wheat among all the chaff. My mother and father led full, fascinating lives and their personal belongings reflected their struggles of war, poverty and loss, as well as their good times of successful careers, vibrant families and deep friendship.

Of special interest to me among their items I discovered in the summer of 2016 was a 62-page paper — a thesis, really — my father wrote while in his final year at Dartmouth in the first half of 1949. That he and I shared an alma mater, as well as a career based on the written word, was icing on the cake that was the subject matter: his take on our country’s perceptions of World War II — before, during and after — from the perspective of an infantry veteran.

The revelations about my father start right away. The paper had no title (which Professor Dargan called out in his on-the-page corrections; his other edits throughout the paper are interesting to this writer/editor as well) but it had an illustration on the cover sheet of a sundial and a soldier’s helmet. I have no idea if my father drew that illustration. I never saw anything resembling art or drawing that he might have made at any point during my life, but my older brother was a good artist when he was younger and my late younger brother was an art student who loved and excelled at drawing and cartooning. Those predilections had to come from somewhere and genetically, those two had only my father in common. There’s no attribution in the paper to another artist yet there are three pages of detailed footnotes in the work, so I am inclined to believe my father drew the illustration.

The narrator of the paper is introduced in a foreword as “American Youth.” The note acknowledges the author is using this generic third-person reference as a tool and that it is actually the author himself speaking. And that narrator reveals some things about himself that his son never knew.

The details include references to what life was like in the pre- and early-war days of gas rationing and blackouts of coastal Massachusetts towns, as well as happier-time images of hockey and visits to the beach (sound like anyone we know?). There are references to appeasing and isolationist American politicians during the 1930s that are in stark contrast to what the 15-year-old son of a World War I veteran knew about “the Krauts” and “the Japs.”

There are portraits of being away at school in Maine and hearing news of Pearl Harbor, and then listening with the rest of the student body and all the faculty to FDR’s speech to Congress a day later — and then retreating to the ice rink to distance himself from the new state of the world. There is the draft and the passing of a physical followed by induction and basic training.

And then there are accounts, though nothing too detailed, of what was encountered from further training in England to landing in France to bypassing Paris and heading to Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge and especially the Battle of the Huertgen Forest waited. The Rhine is crossed at Remagen and Russians are greeted farther east in Germany. And ultimately, there is a return home to a new United States and a new world.

Nothing is too detailed in the accounts because much of the paper is, rather, an assessment of the various interpretations of the war by various publications, books and movies. And not surprisingly given he was a grunt 20-year-old grunt in the infantry, my father’s assessment is particularly harsh on rear-echelon cheerleaders, “sensationalists” and propagandists who outright lied (in some cases about places where my father was actually fighting) and paper generals who fought the war from behind a desk. On the other hand, my father is effusive in his praise of those who were on the front lines and portrayed things there as they really were, especially artist Bill Mauldin.

I had heard many of the wartime tales directly from my father, so what was really interesting to me were the specifics of life before the war and his perspective after it. My father’s slices of pre-war life in Medford, Massachusetts, and his take on war and combat, told from the fresh perspective of a 25-year-old were fascinating, and different from those the 50-something-year-old had told me over the course of my life.

And his take on the post-war reactions at home was just plain shocking. For the 50-plus years I’ve been alive our national storyline has been about how returning World War II veterans were greeted joyously, in stark contrast to how veterans returning home from Korea and Vietnam were treated. But my father’s paper, written less than four years after the close of World War II, puts paid to that falsehood by lamenting the lousy treatment of vets. Earning particular scorn in my father’s words, a feeling he and Mauldin shared, were phonies at the American Legion, desk jockeys who got Combat Infantryman’s Badges while medics who were out “going through the same dirt as did the doggies” didn’t, war profiteers for big business, Army PR officers, political blunders, and “housing and rent troubles” that vets faced. It’s clear why my father was so pleased at the high regard in which the military is held here in the United States in modern times.

Finally, what was eye-opening to me was reading my father’s indictment of what American troops did to the local populace in some of the places. His indictment of immoral behavior on the part of fellow GIs even at such a young age makes it clear how, many years later, when his son was considering applying to the military academies, he could say, “The army made me a man” and in the same breath add, “If you even think about West Point or the Air Force Academy I’ll break both your legs and you won’t play hockey anywhere.”

My father fought in some of the most vile, disgusting, inhuman combat the world has ever seen — and he was proud of what he’d done and what he’d become as a result. But even as a 20-something — an age when all I cared about was surfing, girls, partying and other frivolous, short-term pursuits — he exhibited a moral compass and a steadfastness that I sometimes think I’m still searching for, even in my 50s. He cited a post-war quote from Mauldin: “The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry.”

I set my father’s paper aside after finding it that summer of 2016 for whatever reason. Apparently I wasn’t ready to read it then; perhaps our turbulent final few years together were still too fresh. My father was no saint, make no mistake, but as a result of reading his college work written in 1949 I have a newfound respect for the man. I don’t know if I could have had that respect while he was still alive; our relationship was fraught with all sorts of challenges that stemmed from our individual natures. We were, to cite an oft-quoted (by me, anyway) Springsteen line, “too much of the same kind.” Oh, I respected what he’d done and what he’d been through; I’ve been clear about that for forty years. But now I have a better take on the person and not just his life. It’s a voice from the past that I am grateful to have heard.

Oh, and Professor Dargan gave my father’s paper an A.

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