Sneed: Memories of my Dad on Memorial Day

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Memorial Day . . .

In a way, my father was my country.

A hero of World War II, Dad came home to a daughter born while he was earning his stripes and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Coming into a world at war while Dad’s B-29 was being pummeled by ack-ack in the South Pacific, I paid little attention to the box containing his wartime medals.

That is, until he died.

When I wanted to know everything, there was no one to ask.

My father had come home to a country grateful for his service and then did what all soldiers did. He melted into our national fabric. Tough, worn and resilient, he became a part of us; a face in a crowd, church, bus, baseball game, street crossing and an office.

Memorial Day is a time for remembrance.

Last year, I reflected on a few soldiers I’d met as a journalist. I’d like to remember them again.

• The nine U.S. Marine prisoners of war I interviewed at Camp Pendleton shortly after release from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison in Vietnam. Soldiers who tapped codes on cell walls to communicate; existed on pumpkin soup; marched while imprisoned pretending they were in Philadelphia’s annual Mummers Parade; suffered broken arms and legs that never healed properly; and came home to either a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family, or divorce.

• The story of an old promise finally kept; a watch promised to a young Vietnamese boy more than 40 years ago by a U.S. Marine; a child who had helped him survive.

“It was something I couldn’t reconcile and couldn’t forget,” the Marine told me. “I was leaving for Thailand on a little R&R and told him I would bring him back a watch. I didn’t.”

Eight years ago, that Marine returned to Vietnam in hopes of keeping that promise and found the man who had been that boy.

• And how could I forget two members of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II; one who flew the hump in Burma; the other a sharpshooter in the South Pacific; both winners of the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in two different parts of the world.

One was my father; one my stepfather.

And, as in years past, I will also honormy Dadby re-opening an old cigar box left behind when he died in 1978.

It contains a tattered newspaper clipping about coins; a note from an old friend; and a yellowed business card from a bar in Alaska, where he loved telling stories of encountering moose, bear, and cabbages as big as the moon when he worked on the “Al/Can run” — the highway linking Alaska and Canada — while supporting his family going to school on the G.I. bill.

Dad’s keepsake box also housed two thin pieces of typewritten paper listing every mission he flew in the Pacific as a turret gunner in 1943 and 1944 . . . and this note on the day of my birth: “Almost didn’t make it.”

My father made it home to teach me poker; tell tales of Omar Khayyam; the Mayans; Egypt; Scheherazade; growing up poor, oranges at Christmas, losing teeth in street fights; a pet squirrel; and a baseball career he claimed evaporated when he got drafted into the U.S. Army while trying out for the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team.

I am so eternally grateful the sacrifice Dad made in his country’s service didn’t require his life.

And I am grateful to Bill and Beth Coulson, travelers to the world’s battlefields, who set an example for the reverence we should show our vets by taking the time to return dog tags lost on Guadalcanal during World War II.

For that, and so much else, I give thanks on this Memorial Day.

Sneedlings . . .

Tuesday’s birthdays: Mike Myers, 52, and Ian McKellen, 76.

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