Loss of Innocence…
As a child growing up in the late fifties and early sixties, one of the favorite past time games in our neighborhood was playing war. Between the glorifying World War II stories of Hollywood B films and TV shows, and real life veterans we knew, it seemed our God given, patriotic right to take on this role in innocent play. Many of us had make-believe guns and other assorted army toys, in which to act out our fantasy warfare. My favorite military toy was a plastic mortar launcher that shot out missiles which we would add our own sound effects to for dramatization. We would stage our games amidst the bushes and trees in our yards where the whole neighborhood was one large playground battlefield. We would even play at night with flashlights guiding our military tactics and camouflage. Looking back, I shamefully admit to participating in the choosing of sides for our war games, and always selecting little Bobby to play the part of the wicked Japanese soldier. Bobby’s mother was actually a sweet Japanese woman that his father married while stationed in Japan after the Korean War. Even now, I wince at the memory of Bobby pleading with us in vain to let him be John Wayne at least once.
Growing up in the 1960’s, television brought home the realities of war. From the many gray and white grained news broadcasted flashes from the battlefield, the conflict in Viet Nam seemed like the exciting games we played as children, and the movies we saw and the stories we heard. Exciting tales of glorious victories re-told by some fathers and relatives and friends in backyard settings of our family and neighborhood gatherings. From veterans of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, to Guadalcanal, the stories were mostly all the same and usually ended with a declaration that if they were serving over in Viet Nam right now, the war would be over in 12 months! The more alcohol consumed during those festive occasions by these war vets, the quicker the war would be over.
Dad drank toasts with these vets and quietly listened to all the stories told, but never joined in the telling of war tales. Dad never served in the military, as did many of my uncles and friend’s fathers. When I was a little boy he once told me how he went downtown to volunteer for military service on Dec. 8th 1941, with his cousin and two childhood buddies. The army rejected him because of flat feet; the navy rejected him because of a heart murmur; and finally, the Marines rejected him because of poor vision. Dad said he did his service at home helping the war efforts by working double shifts sometimes at the steel mill, producing military materials.
About 1967, when I was around twelve years old during the height of the Viet Nam war, Dad and I were watching the Walter Cronkite evening news reports about a battle which was going badly for our troops. I asked Dad to tell me his story again about how he and the three men volunteered on Dec. 8th, 1941. Dad explained that one went to each of the three branches of services they visited that day, but he didn't get the chance to go to war. Then I asked him what ever happened to the men? Dad shifted uneasily in his recliner, fumbled with his rolled up newspaper in his lap, and softly replied with an ash, gray look on his face, “dey never came back.”
We never discussed his experience again after that, and I never played soldier again, either. Like many of the lessons in this book, it was another memory I recalled as I wrote his eulogy. Even now, I can’t imagine how he truly felt or how it affected him for the rest of his life to lose a cousin and two childhood friends in that terrible world war, while he was saved from that hell. I have a hunch, though. Now looking back as an adult and a father, I think I understand why he bowed his head solemnly while pledging allegiance, sang out the words to patriotic songs at the top of his lungs, and brought flowers to the cemetery every Memorial Day. And also the reason he was thankful to God that I never had to fight a real war like he almost did once, a long time ago, before the loss of his innocence.