It is Memorial Day Weekend. I know this is a special holiday to honor the men and women in the Armed Forces who died while serving their country. Of course it is important to honor all veterans, living or dead, who have sacrificed so much to ensure our freedom.
My father was a veteran in World War II. Dad wanted to fly airplanes and was in the middle of his aviation training when it was discovered he had polyps in his nose. The Army Air Corp gave him a choice. He could forgo flight school and pursue other military training, or he could have the polyps surgically removed. He chose the latter.
Unfortunately he developed a staph infection from the surgery and spent the rest of the war (three years) in the hospital. The infection spread throughout his face. The Army doctors tried a variety of treatments, mostly surgery. When all was said and done, they moved part of his skull, inserted a specially-designed metal plate in his head, removed cartilage from his nose and made long incisions in his face.
Penicillin was an experimental drug at the time. My father was one of the first to receive the antibiotic. It worked. The infection subsided. My dad lived to tell the tale. And believe me, he did tell the story – over and over again. He talked about the doctor, the price tag for the metal plate in his head (thousands of dollars, but I don’t recall the actual figure) and his never-ending bouts with the nurses.
What my father never spoke of was the psychological after effects of his scarred face. He had been a handsome man. When his sisters showed their friends his pre-surgery photo in his cadet uniform, they swooned and commented on how he looked like the actor Errol Flynn. Although he never said so, my father’s direction in life changed after the war. He was a brilliant man who had talked about attending law school. He never manifested that dream. He went to work managing a tavern in Chicago with his older brothers. His stepfather became ill and could no longer work. My dad and his brother, Irv, (perhaps other brothers as well) gave their earnings to support their mother and younger sisters.
We always suspected that Dad was ashamed of his appearance. It was one thing to work in a dark tavern and quite another to butt heads with sharp and caustic legal eagles in law school. Dad talked – a lot, but never about his fate. He should have died, but he didn’t. Even decades later when he battled Alzheimer’s disease, my father’s desire to live was extremely strong.
He told me (and anyone else who would listen) about a vision, or drug-induced dream he had while undergoing one of the risky surgeries he endured as a soldier. The visage of a strict, old man came to him. He challenged my father to beg for his life. My father refused. The stern man (who dad assumed was the ghost of his own deceased father and not God) confronted him again.
“Why should I let you live?” the voice demanded.
“I am not afraid to die,” dad answered. “My only regret is that I never married or had children. If I did, I know I would be a good husband and father.”
My father awoke from the anesthesia and later recovered. His long-time girlfriend, Shirley, broke off their engagement. I’m not sure if it had to with my dad’s appearance or not, but it seems that it probably played a role in her decision.
In spite of his disfigurement, my dad was undeterred that he would meet the woman of his dreams. Three years after being discharged from the Army, he met a beautiful woman named Peggy. She was a young divorcee with a small, tow-headed toddler named Denny. Dad fell in love with the woman who would later become my mother. More importantly (at least for my mother) he equally fell in love with little Dennis the Menace.
My mother had many suitors, but she later confided that only my father seemed sincere in his love of her only child. Mom and dad married and dad adopted my brother. The three of them are happily captured for eternity in their professional wedding photo. Years later four more children followed: Diane, me, Terry and Tina.
There were times when our family struggled financially. However, I never once doubted the love and devotion of my parents. We were literally their dream come true.
My father passed away in 1996 at the age of 79. He lost his handsome face, his innocence and eventually his keen mind to Alzheimer’s disease. But he left behind a devoted wife (who passed away in 2000) and five children who loved him dearly.
My dad’s sacrifice is just one small tale. Brave men and women continue to suffer and even die in their valiant quest to ensure our freedom. And for two days a year, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, we are asked to remember and honor them.
We all have demanding lives, but we should never be so busy that we cannot express our gratitude to those who have sacrificed so much so that we can be free. To all the veterans out there, I salute you. Please come home safely and enjoy the freedom that you have fought so hard to maintain.