A Memorial Day Reflection
He has been there nearly 55 years. His funeral, when I was 9, has always been an equally vivid and vague montage of images and sounds. It was the first funeral I ever attended.
I didn't actually know the man, except by reputation. My parents were divorced when I was two, after he had run off with the money from the till of the 1940's style highway diner they ran together. He didn't turn up again until his death, seven years later, when a postmortem investigation of his identity reached my mother (he was living under an alias while evading payment of court ordered child support for my brother and me).
My father had enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after World War I. While still in training, he developed heart disease that resulted in a lifetime of service connected disability and his honorable discharge for medical reasons after less than a year of service.
Although Mom hadn't seen or heard from my deadbeat dad in all those years, once he was properly identified, it was Mom, not his widow, who took charge of affairs and arranged for a veteran's funeral at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Mom knew his history and remained close to his brothers and sisters, even though he did not. His new wife didn't know much about him.
My Mom had spent her whole life living with and around the Military and veterans, through both WW II and Korea. She had a good grasp on veterans benefits. A new law had been in the papers when Congress passed the War Orphens' Educational Assistance Act of 1956. Mom knew that her sons were entitled to benefits as surviving dependents of a deceased, service-disabled veteran whose death resulted from that disability. Since his heart is what finally killed him at only 56, my father finally became tangibly valuable to me.
Mom struck like a cobra when the time arrived, got the VA to pay to bury him and then keep paying. They were still paying me years later after I had myself become a veteran. She collected those benefits for me and my brother, along with our Social Security survivor benefits and that money made it possible for us to become the first college and graduate school educated generation in a family of mixed high school and lesser education.
I sometimes tell people that I never really had a father. Although Mom later remarried, her rules made her the sole person with parental authority. My step-father had no role, which may have been just as well given his apparent lack of interest, skill or aptitude for parenting. But in a very important, if unintended or unexpected way, my father, the guy under that white stone in those ordered ranks at Jefferson Barracks, my father looms large in my life. He was willing to volunteer for military service. He did so at a time when the whole World had just had its collective noses rubbed in what a horrible and terrifyingly wasteful thing modern industrialized war had become. His reputation included nothing about stupid, quite the contrary. He knew what military service meant and required of a man and he volunteered.
Through no fault of his own, my father became unfit to complete his military service and eventually his disability cost him his life. On this Memorial Day, I reflect upon my father's one known act of courage (as opposed to feats of daring, which were reputedly common) of choosing to voluntarily enlist for military service. I reflect upon the butterfly effect of that one, brief event over ninety years ago, which eventually diverted my life onto a much more affluent and interesting path than one might have expected for a 50's kid living above the store in a commercial neighborhood, among factory and service workers. I reflect upon how lucky I was to have been considered worthy of investing in by my country.