Saturday, November 9, 2013

What I Think Of On Veterans Day

     One of my childhood memories is the image of my mother standing at an ironing board, applying lots and lots of Faultless Spray-On Starch to my dad's Army uniform. When she was done starching and ironing, it seemed to me that I would risk cutting my finger if I touched the razor-sharp crease that ran down the front of those uniform pants.
     Not that I was ever allowed to touch them. The point of all that ironing and starching was to make sure that there were absolutely no wrinkles in the clothes my dad wore to work. I'm not sure how comfortable he was in starched khaki shirts, Army-issue solid, black ties, and perfectly-creased pants, but he looked really good.  His hair was Brylcreemed, and parted on the left, in a way that mimicked the straight-line crease of his pants.
     I understood that my dad was a soldier and that we had to move at least every three years, and sometimes more often than that. That's what soldiers did. In addition to his stateside assignments, my dad was sent to military bases in Germany, France, and Panama. The family went along for the posting in the Canal Zone, and we stayed together for the hitch at Fort Knox.
     But when I was ten years old, my dad was sent to Vietnam for a tour of duty. Of course, we couldn't go to a war zone and there was no Internet, so we relied on airmail letters and, a couple of times, a really hard to hear overseas phone call that had to be patched through several operators.
     In one of those letters home, my dad sent a picture in which the uniform he wore was decidedly different.  No starched shirts. No ties. No khaki.  He was dressed in camouflage pants and an olive-drab undershirt. And his hair was uncombed. In fact, he seemed more unkempt than I had ever remembered him.
     What I came to realize later is that it was a lot hotter and more humid in Vietnam than it had been on base in the U.S. But, more than that, when you're in danger of being shot at or blown up every day, you start to worry less about the outer trappings of a freshly-starched uniform.
     Don't get me wrong. Dad wasn't in a combat unit. He was one of thousands of personnel who shuffled the necessary paperwork (in triplicate) to see that men and supplies got from one place to another. But, even in that relatively innocuous job, he had some close calls from random sniper fire and unexpected mine fields.
     He returned from Vietnam and continued his military career, ironically at the induction center in Knoxville, Tennessee, where 18-year-old draftees were being prepped for their own trip to 'Nam. He was back in starched khaki uniforms with crisp collars and on his way to retirement and to status as a veteran.
    He's buried today in the Mill Springs National Cemetery, eight miles west of the town where he grew up.  And with all due respect to everyone else who served, when I think of Veterans Day, I think of Dad.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Life As We Know It

     My kids are always asking me about what my life was like growing up, and I think I've figured out why. It is impossible for them to envision my life as a child. To them, it's like a storybook tale, as it would be for anyone trying to envision how things really were before they were born.
     I remember pestering my own parents to talk about their childhoods. My dad, for example, would go to the movies every Saturday and pay a dime to watch B-grade westerns all day. I couldn't imagine paying just ten cents for a movie.
     My mother was raised in a rural home without access to electricity or running water.  She took a bath in a tub that was hand-filled with water hauled from a nearby spring. She used an outhouse, and when her family went to church, they did so using a horse and buggy. It all sounded very pioneering to me. To her, it was just her life.
     My dad's family, meanwhile, had a car. And, while my dad enjoyed the conveniences of living "in town," his house was heated by a coal-burning stove. The sewage from the indoor plumbing went into a cesspool in the back yard. He could read by electric light, but he didn't have a television because those appliances did not come into common use until he was an adult.
     So, even though I get mildly annoyed when my children ask whether cars were invented when I was a kid, I understand their curiosity. The fact is most of things they use daily were not around when I was their age.
     The cars I rode in did not have seat belts, much less car seats. The TV I watched (the only one in the house) was in a big brown box that showed two or three fuzzy black and white channels. I didn't realize then that there would come a day when my perfectly serviceable square TV screen would seem antiquated next to all the cool, high-definition, rectangular displays.
     And I'm pretty sure my kids find it difficult to imagine a world without streaming media or big screen televisions. They have never experienced a situation where they had to look things up in an encyclopedia rather than looking them up on a phone.  They also never knew a time when people didn't carry their phones with them everywhere they went.
     Soon, my kids may not be able to remember broadcast or cable television. We have cut the cord in our house and now watch TV almost exclusively over the Internet.  In that sense, life, as we know it, has changed in a fairly dramatic way. But I don't think the kids even noticed.