by Mary Jo Balistreri
My father places them before me on the maple table in the kitchen, artifacts from his navy years—his personal experience of WWII. Packed and hidden behind stacked boxes in the attic, they are his seventy-year-old secret. At ninety, he has decided either that I am ready to hear about them, or that he is ready to tell. Perhaps both.
I finger silver dog-tags as smooth as stones scoured and polished by river currents, note the faded words of his letters to my mother, the blank windows where a censor’s scissors tried to obscure any observation that might give the squad’s position away. Two pocket-sized books, black and somewhat ominous, lay flat and dense begging to be opened, for their contents to finally spill out.
Anxiety becomes a presence as Dad leaves the room, giving me the space to explore, and my thoughts to roam. As children, when we asked about it, Dad deflected the questions.
We had learned not to ask.
I open to the slanted script and begin to read. The ink is smeared in places, and I imagine his hand trembling, or perhaps tears falling. He writes of decimated Japanese villages, little kids lost and crying, bodies in the rice paddies, bodies huddled together in fear—the killing of them out of fear.
I don’t realize how tightly I’m gripping the book until the beads of my own sweat drip onto the page. Loosening my hold, I wonder about the possible tears. I never saw Dad cry. Yet as I continue reading into the second book, I hear the uncertain, quivering voice that haunts these pages. It is as jarring as the assured and positive voice coming from the living room as Kate Smith sings “God Bless America.”
Pausing to catch my breath, I look up and out of the window, notice the stripes of red, white, and blue that were uplifted this morning now hanging limp in the afternoon desert, the street emptied by heat. The wave of happiness that seemed to float up out of nowhere is replaced by something heavy and hobbled with time. The Sousa marches that stirred the early morning air from band practice at the rec center are replaced by images, death-stilled and sun-hollowed. How does one reconcile the spirited and robust music of patriotism with killing for one’s flag?
Putting the books down to get an iced tea, I recall the Memorial Days we celebrated when I was a child, Dad home from work, and Mother planting sweet William and bachelor buttons, us kids full of energy and excitement for the picnic we’d have later—all the strawberry ice cream we could eat. And though we knew the day was set-aside for veterans and those who died in previous wars, there was no mention of it in our home, no discussion of anything that could throw a pall on the day. Memorial Day was a concept, but it meant something else in reality. It was the unofficial beginning of summer, a holiday of celebration, but not reflection.
Even as an adult, Memorial Day was Ocean City, New Jersey on the boardwalk: Philly cheese steaks, caramel corn, crashing waves, seaweed, cinnamon buns, and salt-water taffy.
I put these memories aside as I continue to read the names Dad wrote down of the men who died, the handwriting becoming more illegible, followed by whole pages of nothing, then again the names of wounded men in his squad—men he would never see again. I hear loneliness and loss, in spite of the entries about the band he sang with on board his ship. I see the young man in the photo, yellowed and unmoored from its scotch tape. He is bare-chested wearing a grass skirt, a knife clasped in his mouth. This is my Dad?
In the living room, Dad waits for my return as he sits in his chair with a glass of Merlot. I walk in and he offers me a glass of wine, which I eagerly accept.
“Well,” he says. “What do you think?”
I pause and then say, “You went through so much. Why did you carry this burden all alone? Seventy years, Dad? Didn’t it bother you, eat away at your personal peace?”
He shrugs and replies, “There was no way to talk about it. The war was over; I wanted to start fresh. You were too young and how would talking about it have changed anything, except spoil the new memories we were making?”
We sit for a while on the road from one life to another. The peach shears change the sun’s glare to amber as we contemplate the echo of so many lives. A poet recites Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” as background music fills in the spaces with something I don’t know—maybe Charles Ives’ “Declaration Day.”
In the shifting sheet of light, my initial feeling is sadness. How torn Dad must have been by these experiences, but also how saddened I am by the knowledge that such a large chunk of his life had been unavailable, the next thought tumbling over that one –I wonder if knowing would have made a difference? What would it have meant in terms of life-shaping events and how it affected Dad? As a child, wouldn’t I have been more inclined to just listen to the facts like I would a sad bedtime story? I vaguely wonder too if he still believes in war but I dismiss that thought. I know what he would say: We were attacked. There was no choice.
With dawning awareness, I realize it is that same instinct that silenced his voice all these years because there was no choice. Speaking the truth could not have made anyone’s life better. When Dad was a young man, tears were not allowed; he did what he could. My eyes brim with the tears he had hidden between the pages of a diary, with what he endured for his family, to protect us as he had protected our country. And I think, for the first time consciously,
My Dad is a Hero—even in his silence.
My Dad is a Hero.
I walk over to his chair and put my arms around him. Thank you is all I can manage to say as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir raises their voices as one, builds to a full crescendo, and fills the house from one corner to the other with “America the Beautiful.”