Saturday, October 20, 2018

Appalachian Requiem - Don't Get Excited - A Veteran's Story

I've had this article in draft since MAY! The month my Dad died. Since Veteran's Day is coming up...guess it would be a good time to finish it.

In life there are always days you have that you remember.  Long after the event has happened, every year that goes by you still have a memory that associates with a date on a calendar.  It's not like the days you celebrate every year such as a holiday, a birthday or an official anniversary of a these are more nefarious dates....such as May 6th...the day my Dad died.

Every year when the date comes around, something seems off kilter. I don't really remember his death until I question, what's off, why does this time of year seem weird? I mean the mountains are coming to life, "greening up", the drab gray of winter going away.  Everything comes alive and it is beautiful, why is something is off? Then thinking about it, memories break through and then I remember the days many years ago when Dad moved on from this life.

The entire week dad actually died was a strange week. Dad had been dying for a couple of years. Colon cancer. He was tough even in his illness. Even with colon cancer, up to two weeks before he died, he was chopping wood. My Dad was a soldier most of his life. He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.

His growth and bravery I believe, started by leaving the farm. He worked on a farm with his grandfather, Lindsay Stevenson, in Tazewell County before joining the Army in 1939. He was in the 50th Division of Patton's 5th Army in Europe during WWII. He said he took a pay cut in 1939, to go into the Army. He marched all over Europe with Patton for the entire war.

After the war, he joined the Navy and served during Korea and Vietnam. When you asked him why he got out of the Army to go into the Navy, he would say, "I wanted to ride in the rear with the beer for awhile." His Army days were full of marching, fox holes, bullets, mortar shells and tanks. His war stories and nightmares were his own.

My mother insisted on sleeping on the right side of any bed with him. He would have this recurring nightmare where if she slept on the left side, she'd get thrown out of the bed out of the way of a tank in his dream. After landing in the floor a couple of times, in the middle of the night, she finally figured how to deal with that one.

Because of my dad's service to the military, the one very stark thing I noticed about my father is he didn't get rattled when things went wrong like most people.  He had the demeanor of a soldier and all those who serve, such as firefighters, EMS and police.  The kind of presence that was reassuring even in the worst events, even though inside they were probably just as scared as anyone. They have a job to do and that overrules any fear.

Once I was driving his car and a tie rod end broke going around the corner. The entire front wheel folded up under the car, while I was driving.  I was totally freaked out and he's sitting next to me so calm saying, "Don't get excited. The car is going to stop".  Any and every family calamity, everyone knows that refrain at any catastrophe from Dad..."Don't get excited" was his pat answer.

Once we were driving "Up Home" on his vacation on a long stretch of highway and this wheel passed us on the passenger side. Dad realized it was our rear wheel off of the car. He said, "Look at that! It's our wheel." The car was riding on 3 wheels and instead of stopping my dad hit the gas and followed the tire. We went to screaming and he's telling us, "Now, don't get excited, sit down and well land it near the tire." He waited for the tire to stop rolling and then pulled the car in right behind where it landed about 10 feet away. The car went down with a thunk. He just jacked it up, cleaned off the brake and put the tire back on with some spare lug nuts he kept and down the road we went again.

All of us in the family knew, anything that happened, when Dad said, "Don't get excited", it meant, "hush" let's ride this out, look at the damage, figure this out and get to work fixing whatever was wrong.  If you survived and were alive and were not physically hurt, that was most of the battle to him.  The rest of it was nothing as long as you survived whatever happened. If you wrecked the car and came in with nothing but the steering wheel, it was going to be OK, as long as you survived it. If you lost a job, or divorced or had anything adverse happen.. "Don't get excited" People don't think when they are upset and make things worse.

This came from YEARS of dealing in the military with events, that would freak most of us out.  I was a young girl when I became aware of how BRAVE my dad was. Just before he retired from the Navy, he was a flight mechanic. Since he had been working on military planes for SO Long...he was in demand for a special job. His job was to fly around the world with a flight crew, flying elderly planes that needed to be put in the graveyard in Arizona.  It was easier to fly them on their last run than haul them over ground.

These planes were at the end of their useful career. It was dad's job to get them ready for their final flights. He would tell us stories of alarms going off while they were in the air and if they couldn't figure out what was wrong they would put a tape over the warning lights or disconnect the alarm and keep flying.  He was one of the first flight crews to try out foam on a runway, because a plane's landing gear wouldn't work.

My mother would get these phone calls from the base that would upset her to NO end. They'd call her and say, "he's coming in with only one engine working or with a torn wing or no landing gear." About  2 times a month. She'd hit her knees and start praying.  Then after it was over, they never called her to tell her whether the flight crew made it and he was OK. She would try to call the base and they wouldn't give out that information.

My Dad had no idea they had called her and the first place the flight crew went after surviving these ordeals, was to a bar to get a DRINK. He wouldn't call home. Back then Dad called on a certain day, at a certain time because long distance was expensive. We would get post cards all the time. She finally just told them, "Don't call me!" "Just don't call me, unless he's hurt and needs me. I send him out with a prayer and if God sees fit, he will come back to us alive."

I can remember the worst fight I ever witnessed my parents have. They had gone to the base for a unit picnic when one of Dad's pilots he worked with told on him. He was shaking his hand and telling others, "This is the craziest S.O.B. I've ever met!" Then proceeded to tell a recent story on my Dad. The plane they went to pick up was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  It was a radar plane, or a "stoof with a roof" as Dad called it. Just as it was getting ready to take off and gaining speed, half the landing gear collapsed.  The plane spun around all over the runway, landed cockeyed and caught on fire. Everyone got out including my father......but Dad...went back in a burning plane and saved the Cuban cigars and Rum!

My mother on hearing that story, lost it!!! They came in arguing that evening. I remember Mom telling Dad, "I know what you do is dangerous, but dammit Donald, you don't have to make it more dangerous on purpose!" "You are going to leave me with 5 kids to raise alone, for Cuban cigars and rum?" My mother had a temper. I remember him telling her, "Aw, Lean, (he never called her Lena, but Lean) it wasn't all that!" She was mad about that one for a long TIME.

For a man that had survived WWII, and served in the Navy doing what he did...NOPE....nothing really rattled him much. One of his greatest lessons I think he taught me was, it didn't matter how bad things got, as long as you survived with your life, you have a chance to continue to live and hope for a future. "Things" don't matter, but being alive does, because it's life that is precious.

He told a story of being in a town in Germany, and when they first saw it, it was beautiful. After the allies bombed it, there was nothing left. As they were marching into the town, he said, they saw a man and his family at the end of a street. They had come out of a half blown away house. Before they could reach them, the man shot his wife, an elderly woman and his two children before turning the gun on his self.  Dad didn't understand all...because they had survived. He always said, the greatest thing regardless of what happens is to survive.

So in celebration of the week this wonderful man passed, and in lieu of Veteran's Day, I guess it does feel a little off, so I can reflect and remember and I do.