Everybody Has a Story: Dad broke customary silence with rare act of grace




Did you watch “The Vietnam War” on PBS? I couldn’t watch. For many it’s a history lesson; for me it was part of growing up.

Every night on the news, there was a death count. Every night on the news, there were reports of the mistreatment of military personnel at the hands of their fellow citizens. Today, if someone speaks to a person in uniform, it’s likely to say, “thank you for your service.”

We might not approve of the wars we are involved in now, but we support the men and women who defend our nation.

Not so during the Vietnam War. Our country was divided. War protesters were regularly seen on the news mistreating soldiers, spitting on them, calling them murderers and worse. Soldiers were often treated as if they were personally responsible for the war.

This brings me to a rare positive memory I have of my father. He was not an easy person. He seemed to have the attitude that the world owed him something he wasn’t getting; he was not a happy man. After I became an adult, I realized he suffered from depression and anxiety. He’s been gone for more than 40 years now.

Back then there were no medications to help someone like him. So I ignored him as much as possible.

When this story happened, I was just about out of my teens and the Vietnam War was in full swing. My dad and I were seated at an airport gate. We were at the end of a row, with another row facing us across a narrow aisle. At the other end of the row, facing us, was a man in military uniform. It was just the three of us in those two rows.

No conversation; my dad and I never had anything to say to each other, and the military man was alone. He was black.

My father kept staring at him. He’d look away for a bit, but then return to his stare. Was he staring because the man was black? Dad wasn’t interested in people’s race, so that couldn’t have been it. What did that look on Dad’s face mean? I was getting uncomfortable, knowing that my father could be inappropriate. Had the soldier noticed Dad staring? Was he getting uncomfortable?

Eventually Dad got up and, with a humble step, walked down toward the soldier while I held my breath. Then Dad grew a halo as he quietly asked if he could shake that soldier’s hand. I don’t believe another word was said as the fellow reached out for the handshake. My father came back, sat down and the three of us continued our silence.

Sometimes, when a parent is less than stellar, it’s difficult for offspring to have good memories. But I have the memory of being there at what I consider my Dad’s finest moment. I hope that soldier remembers it, too.

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