“He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”
That’s my dad in the photo, newly enlisted in the Coast Guard. He was 19 years old.
He wanted adventure and to see the world.
He also wanted to serve his country.
After his time in the Coast Guard, he took the GI Bill (which was available to him because was white) and went to college, studying Russian history, which was very relevant at the time. He was the first person in his family to go to college; neither of his parents got to go past 8th grade.
Then he joined the air force. He wanted to be a pilot in the navy and tried that first. He ate nothing but carrots for days, hoping it would help him pass the eye exam, but he still failed and was not going to be admitted to flight school, so he switched to the air force.
He went to air force officer candidate school (OCS). While he was home on break, he met my mother in the bar of the bowling alley of their home town, drove her home, got stuck in the ditch at her house, and had to wake my grandfather up at 2:00 a.m. to drag his car out of the ditch. In the Wisconsin February snow and cold.
Plus my grandfather was no fool and knew what had been going on in the car for a while before my mom and dad realized the car was stuck.
He finished OCS and became a maintenance control officer, which means he was in charge of making sure the airplanes were fit to fly. He knew how to fix things and he knew how to lead other people to fix things.
When I was four, he went to Vietnam.
My mother was 25 years old. She had three children. Her husband was sent to the other side of the world. There was no internet. There was no email. There was only the nightly news and a newspaper.
For an entire year, she went to bed every single night not knowing if the next day would be the day that the chaplain would knock on our door.
We moved to Spain, where Franco was running things. My dad wasn’t home a lot – he went to Turkey for a month at a time every few months.
We moved to west Texas. My dad coached my sister’s soccer team. (My mom coached mine.)
My dad taught me to drive stick shift and how to dig dandelions – you have to get the entire root. We rode our bikes to school and my dad insisted that we attach flags to the bikes for visibility.
We moved to the Panama Canal Zone, where Torrijos was the dictator du jour. My dad volunteered with my swim team, took my CYO group camping, and was an adult sponsor for the Sea Scouts. He took my friends and me sailing on the little sailboat he had bought, a dream he had always had.
At 5:00 a.m., my dad would blast the Boston Pops playing Sousa to wake us up to drive to the lake.
The night before my parents drove me to college, from San Antonio to Houston, my dad and I were packing the car.
“If you’re going to get laid,” my dad said, “use protection.”
“Dad!” I said. “You know I don’t believe in pre-marital sex!”
(I mean – I didn’t. I was 17.)
He rolled his eyes. “It’s going to happen. Don’t be stupid about it.”
When I was in college, my dad retired from the air force and went back to school to become certified to be a teacher. Active duty pay is low. Retirement pay is even lower. He got a job at Walmart to supplement his pension.
I was mortified.
My college friends’ fathers were corporate VPs and professors and lawyers and surgeons.
My mother, rightfully so, set me straight. Now I am ashamed of my shame. Is there any love greater than that of a parent who takes a minimum wage job just so he can feed his family?
My dad got his teaching certificate. He and my mom and dad moved to Sicily. At the age of 61, he had gotten a job teaching math and science at the junior high school on the US navy base on Sicily.
A few months later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He thought he had pulled a muscle running a 10K.
He was 61 years old.
He thought he had pulled a muscle running a 10K.
It wasn’t a pulled muscle.
It was cancer.
It was cancer that he got because he was exposed to Agent Orange when he was in Vietnam.
He went through months of chemo. He lost over a third of his body weight. He had to use a diaper.
At the Lackland AFB hospital in San Antonio, where he was sent from Sicily, the young airmen who would change his diapers and his sheets always called him “sir” and looked him in the eye.
The hospital chaplain would hang out in my dad’s room to talk to him, just because he liked my dad.
The students he had taught for only four months held two bake sales to raise money to buy him a copy of their yearbook. They all signed it and sent it to him.
Friends my mom and dad had made all over the world – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy – called my dad to wish him well. One friend told my dad that everyone at his mosque in Ankara was praying for his healing.
After five months of treatment, we thought the cancer was in remission. (A matter of luck, not of his being a fighter. Beating cancer is all about luck and nothing but luck.)
He gained weight. He exercised and regained strength. His hair started growing back.
Two months later, the cancer returned.
“Why you?” I asked him. “Why should you have cancer? Why not someone awful and mean?”
“Why not me?” he answered. “What makes me so special that bad things should not happen to me?”
We hoped for a miracle, but the only miracle we got was that after ten days in hospice, the two pound bag of peanut M&Ms that one of my aunts had brought down was left untouched.
On the day he died, which was exactly 23 years, ten days, and six hours ago, he was 62 years and two months old.
It has been 23 years, ten days, and six hours since my dad died.
We still mourn him. We still miss him.
Nobody will miss the current president. There is not one single person alive who will say, “He was my friend” or “He was the best father in the world” or “I loved him so much.” Not one.
Who’s the real loser and sucker?