My father chose February in which to die: Columbus, Ohio’s cruelest month. At least, on the day he was laid to rest, the sun shone magnanimously. When we arrived at the cemetery, I was surprised to see three uniformed Navy soldiers.
My dad was a Navy veteran of World War II. He served for several years toward the end of the war, later telling us, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the lessons the war taught me, and I wouldn’t take a million dollars to do it again.” That said, the experiences he shared were mostly positive; more McHale’s Navy’s PT 73 than JFK’s PT 109. And his time in the service stayed with him. As he aged, my dad always wore a ball cap while boating, defending his balding pate from the sun. And it was always cocked jauntily to the left. I asked him one time why he wore it like that and he recalled being disciplined more than once for thus insouciantly tipping his Navy “Dixie cup” cap, like Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles. “After I got out of the service,” he said, “I vowed that nobody was ever going to tell me how to wear my hat again.”
On this cold winter morning, following the religious ceremony at his gravesite, the Navy personnel engaged in their military ritual. First was the playing of taps. Granted, its plaintiveness was diminished by the fact that it came from a boom box, but, “Hey,” joked my brother, “It’s not like he was a General or something.”
I found the handling of the flag that draped his coffin more moving. With reverence and precision, the soldiers lifted it carefully, folding it in tight triangles, ending with the blue field of stars. A soldier knelt before my mother and presented it to her, “on behalf of a grateful nation.”
I did not follow my father in service to our country. The Vietnam War ended just as I was turning seventeen. Over the course of my career as a mental health counselor, though, I have treated many of the survivors of that conflict, and over the last few years, a new procession of wounded warriors has begun. I never leave an encounter without thinking that, had I been a year or two older, my own story might have been quite different. Animal House might have metastasized into Apocalypse Now.
When my mother died, the flag – which she had wrapped, rather incongruously, in an old plaid sheet – was one of the first things I took with me. It now resides in a bottom dresser drawer in my bedroom. On each of the fourteen Veteran’s Days since my father’s passing, I take out the flag and remember his service, I recall his stories, and wonder about ones that he didn’t tell. I say a prayer of thanks to him, his comrades, and those who continue to serve.