Lucky man


Pops with his LST.

My dad enlisted in the service as a college student at San José State University in the then-orchard-ridden South (San Francisco) Bay Area. He was what he called a “90-day Wonder,” prepared for leadership in war by three months at an officer’s training school at Columbia University in New York.

He still retains a number of stories from WWII, none of which entail him receiving anything more than a glancing wound. (His glancing wound was one, once, and it was his own durn fault: during a ship-board drill, he banged his head on a pipe. When he appeared topside with his helmet on, a wee trickle of blood ran down his temple. He gets a special impish twinkle in his eye as he tells about the fervor with which his men saluted him after that drill.)

One of his stories sticks with me the most, because it is so descriptive of his life.  He was on an LST – landing ship, tank – heading to Normandy Beach along with a flotilla of other D-Day-bound vessels. They were off the coast of Scotland, and he was on lookout on a cloudless, moonlit night. Another sailor confessed to him his worry: they would be more easily detectable on such a bright night. My father thought: pish tush. And then movement in the water below him caught his eye. He watched the ripples of water above as a torpedo drilled its way toward his ship from the port side, then under it, then, with a burst of light, it exploded into the deeper-hulled transport ship to the starboard. There but for a deeper draught would have gone my father.

He tells of this with the same “no big deal” understatement that he tries to apply to the various traumatizing events that have buffeted him throughout his life. The cancer death of his younger sister. A few years later, the cancer death of his wife of 30-some-odd years. A dozen years after that, the cancer death of his first grandson, at ten.

He told me that that last death in particular was immeasurably harder than the war was for him. That may say as much about what he saw during the war as it does about the impact of the death of a child. It also just hints at what it might feel like, the death of a child due to war.

My Pops knows he’s a lucky man, is the main thing. Watching that torpedo go under his ship just focussed and dramatized something that seems to have happened throughout his long life.  The mixed blessing of seeing hardship narrowly miss him, yet still exact its painful toll, right there in front of him.  The peculiar weight borne by the compassionate witness-bearer. The luck of his long life has a bittersweet taste to it. The bitter: the longer he lives, the more people he outlives.  The sweet: the longer he lives, the more he loves who he still has, for as long as he still has.

6 thoughts on “Lucky man”

  1. Beautiful post as usual. Thank you for for posting it, and thank your Pops for his service for me.

    I always figured a long life was a good thing. More time to spend here with those you love and some you don’t, but as I sit back watching someone close to me grasping for a way to cope with the very real posibility of loosing her Mom to breast cancer that should have been cought early but was not (malpractice suit forthcoming I am certain) it makes me wonder if shorter might be the way to go. Arrive to the party, hang out while it’s going strong, make your impact on the crowd, and exit quietly out the back door while no one is looking. I guess there is something to be said for both the long and truncated versions of life.

    • Thank you. I’ll definitely pass along your thanks to my Pops, Shane. My heart goes out to your friend. My mom’s breast cancer was diagnosed, but not its metastasis (text book, a 1st year intern could have seen it in the x-rays but not we as-yet cancer ignorant family members). A decade and a half later I am still getting to the deeper consequences of not having been able to wittingly say goodbye, or to ask for (and receive? or not receive?) any final benedictions. If your friend and her mother have the time for this, I’d encourage her to speed, speed to the core emotional work (whatever it is between them, or however they can engage it). Which I’m sure she’s doing as best she can, amidst calamity.

      I do hope that if I’m as long-lived as my dad, I will have (by then) accumulated enough gratitude, grace, and internal fortitude to greet whatever it is that’s facing me, even if it’s with many fewer loved ones around me than I now imagine. (George Saunders said at David Foster Wallace’s memorial, “Grief is the bill that comes due for love,” and of course it’s true. All loves will end, somehow, usually in a way or time unexpected or unwelcome, and it still utterly boggles my mind.) For years following my mother’s death, I would look at old couples together — still do, really — and think: that is one of life’s hugest gifts. Old age with an old beloved. We never expected my dad to negotiate his final decades without his pilot.

  2. Beautiful. I hope your Pops had a fantastic birthday, and it’s interesting (although heartbreaking) to realize all the loss he’s experienced in his lifetime. I guess the hardest part about growing old is that not all our commrades get to grow up with us. My grandmother has expressed the same thoughts numerous times, as she lays in the nursing home, and I wonder sometimes who it’s all serving–her? Us?

    Very difficult questions, indeed.

    Either way…the smile on your dad’s face is priceless! Lucky him, lucky you, and lucky kids.

  3. Beautiful and poignant as usual, LD. How often the close proximity of sorrow serves to focus our attention on the “core.” Thanks for sharing — and thank you to Pops for his service on my behalf.

    Hope you and yours are doing well

    much blessing,

  4. I wish I could have had that time with my Dad. He had an interesting life that I would have loved to talk to him as an adult about, but luekemia took him at 59, when I was 15. There are so many things about myself I never told him. I suppose deep down all you can do is hope that he wouldn’t mind.

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