The old pictures are beginning to fade, but they are new to me.
My father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and access to my parents’ personal papers has heightened the respect I’ve always held for him.
Photographs of my father from his military years are few, so they are treasured. My sister and I are rushing to make digital copies after the originals landed in our hands after Mom died last spring.
Dad never talked much about his time in the military, which is typical of most veterans. If he said anything, it was to downplay his role.
We learned that Dad was the radioman in a two-man fighter-bomber after he credited that assignment for his interest in electronic communications — which included becoming an amateur “ham” radio operator. He was hard of hearing because of an injury he suffered during the war. Static coming out of the headset he used damaged an eardrum, and while the disability wasn’t too obvious, he did manipulate the condition to his advantage when it suited him.
He seldom heard Mom when she asked him to, let’s say, turn down the television volume, but he sprang from the bed when his infant daughter moaned quietly while asleep on the opposite side of the house.
It had to do with the frequencies of their voices, he explained.
Regardless, the hearing problem in that one ear was enough of an issue that the Navy Reserves chose not to call him back into active duty when the war in Korea broke out five years after his discharge during World War II. It was just as well the Navy didn’t want him serving again, because he had a wife and two-week-old baby boy back home. I was that boy.
The pictures of Dad in uniform, poised to fight the enemy, don’t align with the memories of the man I knew, a man eager to read a book to his children or to tend his flower and vegetable gardens. Thinking back to his later years when he endured a series of heart and stomach ailments, it’s difficult to recognize that man in the pictures — a sailor so healthy and fit, a man with movie-star looks and wavy black hair.
The photos suggest he was a young man with a streak of mischief in him, but maybe I’m projecting that into the black-and-white images because I had been told it was so. The young sailor we see in Navy uniform was the one who had bailed his older brother out of jail after a Saturday night on the town. As the story goes, they both lived the “boys will be boys” lifestyle, but once, his brother got caught. Dad brought bail money to the jailhouse Sunday morning, and they slipped out the back door just in time. Their father, a Pentecostal minister, was at the front entrance on his weekly rounds to pray with inmates before church.
Despite everything that’s inconsistent, there’s no doubt that the man shown in uniform during the early 1940s was the sweet parent I came to know as “Dad” less than a decade later. The stress of his job and health issues —brought on by the stress of his job — aged him. I wish I could have known him before he and Mom met, courted, got married, and started a family.
These pictures of youth tell a story of dedication and patriotism, offering only a glimpse of who he was and what he did for the greater good. That’s the way it is with almost every United States military veteran you meet. Generally, they devoted a handful of the best years of their lives to serve this country and us, the American people. They were in their prime. After their service, they returned to civilian life to pursue, with everyone else, the freedoms their service helped preserve.
This Veterans Day weekend, we honor each one. Regardless of their ages, we still picture them as heroes, in uniform.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.