More Conversations With My Father
I won’t talk about the trip down to North Carolina after Christmas. That was a literal shit show – four adults, three dogs and luggage crammed into a Subaru Forester on a ten-hour car ride. You can only imagine. We’ll save that for another time. Instead, I’d like to talk about my talks and walks with my Dad during the few days I was down in North Carolina.
Dad has a little business; a dog walking business, to be precise. This requires him to spend his mornings and sometimes his afternoons being of service to our four-legged friends. Plenty of chances to delve below the surface of a man who doesn’t reveal much to begin with.
Dad has a tendency of over the past year or so to repeat himself. Telling the same stories or replaying of events as if he is telling it to me for the first time. Lately I’m noticing that he is mixing up his stories – weaving past events into current events. I say this partly to acknowledge to myself he is getting older and that opportunities to have these conversations will be fewer and fewer. Despite his physical health being good, he is showing signs of slipping. I think he realizes it too. He complains that he can’t remember where he put things, he can’t remember people’s names. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for him to not be as sharp as he used to be. Yet, despite these realizations that things are not as they used to be, there are many moments of clarity that allow us to get a little closer; opportunities to share in times when the future looked bright for him.
One morning we talked about his days in Army. I don’t know how we arrived at that topic but I went with it. I’ll attempt to paraphrase and summarize our conversation.
“Why did you enlist in the Army?”
“I enlisted because then I’d have some control over my future. If I let them draft me they could send me anywhere. I had a friend of mine who waited to be drafted; he wound up being stationed in Germany. Not a good situation at that time.”
“Why? Weren’t you worried about Vietnam?”
“No. Vietnam wasn’t on the radar then. Back then the concern was Berlin and the Communists/Cold War. That was a real worry. Tensions were very high then. I didn’t want to put myself in a position of being sent to the front lines during the Cold War.”
“What were you assigned to do during your stint?”
“After basic training in Fort Dix I was shipped out to Oklahoma for training with artillery. I got pretty good at it; so good in fact that I was able to get my unit to zero in on the target within four shots and within a few minutes. I had other duties too. I remember being on guard duty one night and I had one guy in my unit who wasn’t too swift. He had the watch before me; I told him to find me when his watch was almost over so I could take over for him. I was going to get some shut-eye. Next thing I know, I wake to revelry playing. ‘Oh shit!’ I quickly got dressed and ran to find the guy who was supposed to wake me. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’ ‘All the barracks look alike and I gave up trying to find you.’ Needless to say we got ripped a new one but it was worse for the other guys than it was for me.”
“The other guys would tear up the town whenever they got a weekend pass. Sometimes they’d get drunk or thrown in the brig for disorderly conduct. Not me though. I would stay on base and play cards with the officers. Occasionally I’d get a care package from my mother, good Italian food from the neighborhood, and I’d share it with my superiors. They appreciated that. So, when it came to getting the assignments from the NCOs, they’d give the crappy ones to the others and give me the plum jobs. [smiles and chuckles]. There was a method to my madness.
Before long my time was up and I was given a choice – re-enlist in the National Guard/Reserves for one more year or walk away and take my chances on getting drafted. I re-upped in the National Guard/Reserves and managed to avoid Berlin and Vietnam. In a year my discharge papers arrived and I was done!”
The last day of our visit arrived. The car is packed. The dogs are in the back of the car. As the others say they’re good byes they make their way toward the car. I hang back for a bit. Dad approaches me with his arms outstretched. I think to myself, “Is he getting choked up? Yes, he is! He’s choking back some tears.” We hug for a few seconds but it seems longer, a lot longer. Lumps grow in each of our throats. “I’m glad you came down to visit. It means a lot to me that you could spend some time with me.”
Me too, Dad.