It took me a lifetime to understand my dad (at least as much as I could). Now all these years after he died, I have come to see where the man he became was pretty much determined early in his life in a classroom called Guadalcanal.
I know very little about his personal experiences as a Marine on this Pacific island. I think I remember every time (which wasn’t often) he commented on what war was like for him. Each of his comments was off-hand—a sort of spontaneous exclamation he made without thinking. If he thought about it, he would say nothing.
The comments I recall were:
• “You weren’t afraid to jump into the water as the landing craft hit the beach because you just wanted to get away from all the puking Marines.”
• “The Marines said they would train me for a profession. Unfortunately, they trained me to be a machine gunner.”
• “Kamikaze attacks weren’t that bad. You would listen to the enemy soldiers yelling all night as they drank sake and when they attacked in the morning they were all drunk.”
• “Month after month all I had to eat was Spam. I’ll never eat it again.”
What I have read about Guadalcanal indicates it was a key battle fought as U.S. troops moved across the Pacific towards Japan. It is said that the clash was “unexcelled for sustained violence on land, sea, and in the air.” The fighting lasted for six months and the Japanese lost 20,000 men to the 2,000 lost by the U.S.
During his time on Guadalcanal, my dad turned 18, was wounded by grenade shrapnel, and refused a purple heart because he was afraid if his mother found out “she would worry”. Whatever else happened to him during his time on the jungle-covered island will always remain unknown, but in reading various accounts of the fighting that took place here, I believe I have a pretty good idea of what he experienced.
I now believe this experience shaped my dad’s personality and values for the remainder of his life. It created a man who valued loyalty, truthfulness, and doing what he believed was the right thing above all else and from this time on, made him a man who never worried if something was hard, difficult, or challenging. He became a person who never saw a reason to fear anything again. All of this led to him being a firm and supportive dad, but one who kept personal issues to himself.
It was this man, in the last year of his life, who sent me a newspaper clipping and a letter (I had only received “notes” or phone calls from him prior to this). The article was written for Father’s Day and the author talked about his own up and down relationship with his father. He sums it up by saying after his father died, ”We left much unsaid, but not much misunderstood.”
My dad’s letter was extremely short but in it he said, “Unfortunately, I see myself in the role of his dad—always too busy to be a really good father.” He finished with, “I don’t remember my dad ever telling me he loved me and I have been neglectful in the same way. I hope you will read this and understand how much I loved you.”
As I said, I received this letter shortly before he died, but felt good I had a chance to tell him he didn’t have to tell to me he “loved” me. He had showed it in everything he did with and for me during my entire lifetime.
I told him “Neither one of us used the word “love,” but the days I spent hunting, fishing, and just hanging out with you—maybe with the exception of the time you thought I needed to help you build a garage—remain some of the best memories of my life and those feelings are what I always thought love was.”
This letter is the most cherished memorabilia I have from my father and yet I had forgotten about it for years. That was until my wife mentioned that when she used the old recipes handed down from her mother, she felt a connection with her because they were hand-written. When I went and dug up my dad’s letter, I got the very same feeling.
I have decided that I need to do the very same thing for my wife and two daughters. I think I have done a better job of telling them I loved them, but I want them to know that they were the absolute most important things in my life. I might go ahead and write a note to the grandkids as well (for when they can read and will at least find a hand-written letter an oddity).
It seems a bit stupid, but I know these letters will be valued by them in the future. As a GEEZER, you might want to consider doing something like this as well—when you are long gone, such a letter will still put you in contact with the people you loved—it my even make them cry.