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.