As a curious (more like snoopy) child my parents found it impossible to hide anything from me, and my father’s Air Force uniform was one of those things. I remember discovering his hat in their room, strategically placed on top of a large bookshelf easily 5 feet above my reach. It didn’t stop me.
I pulled the hat down and plunked it onto my head. As I remember it, the brim instantly slid down over my eyes and the band covered my ears too. It was the coolest! I liked it because it looked like a policeman’s cap, and it was “real”, but moreover it was my dad’s! I wore it constantly.
I remember that my dad, in his usual way, very gradually and methodically explained to me why I needed to take good care of his head wear. He told the story of how he had worn that hat on his WWII tour in Italy, and in Africa, and when he arrived home (at what was then the platform of the Lackawanna Station in Scranton) how he had to take it off to kiss his incredibly relieved mother and sisters.
He told me how he packed parachutes, slept in tents, dealt with unbearable heat and driving rain, and peeled potatoes all night long on a few KP duty assignments! He spoke of the grueling trip aboard an overstuffed ship, to a destination he’d never been, with a bunch of equally young men who he’d never met, and the collective fear of the unknown they all felt.
Eventually I stopped wearing the hat and instead put it on another shelf, this time in my room, and looked at it every day. It had come to represent a time I would never know, and a bravery I’d never have to muster, but above all else a time in my father’s history that made him greater than I could ever imagine being. That hat and that man had traveled the world and served a great purpose, and to me it needed to be protected as a result.
Every year on Memorial Day, without fail, my parents and I would go to the Dalton park after the parade and listen to the local Vets fire off a 21 gun salute, then the LTHS band played taps and the National Anthem, and then we’d listen in silence to the names of the town’s past vets read aloud… my father’s name is now among them and we too are carrying on that tradition as a family.
I still have that hat, and someday I’ll have to explain to my step-daughter how it came to mean so much to me… I don’t expect her to understand at first, but she’ll get eventually, in the same way I did.
This Memorial Day, try to imagine the fear, sadness, and the loss that so many have endured to allow you to have a peaceful cookout at your house. Try, if you can, to imagine you lived in the place of the names that you see on the tombstones with American flags attached to them; the time when they shipped out, or learned the process of honorable service, the time when they fought our enemies while seeing and doing the unthinkable with a hardened resolve, or the day that they came home from war their lives changed as a result forever… and then take a moment to pause, and respect the remarkable history of peace that those men and women have created for us.