I am 54. He is 84.
Yesterday I learned how proud my dad was of nailing an artillery target during a demonstration for “the muckety mucks” (senior officers) while a young Second Lieutenant in the Army in the 1950s. I knew my dad had spent a couple of years in the Army after college, but never once asked him about it. His sharp memory and evident pride in this short period of his life so many decades ago shocked me.
What else didn’t I know and why had I never asked?
Like many Gen Xers, I had, to put it bluntly, a shitty relationship with my father. He was from a generation with even more rigid gender roles than we see today. We did almost nothing together. He went to work six days a week, and provided income for the family. My mother was the one who took us to doctors appointments, made school lunch for us, paid the bills and did all the domestic things a woman of her era was expected to do.
I recall playing catch with my dad once.
He took me out for a father / son breakfast — once.
So rare were these father son bonding moments that I remember each one in vivid detail. Including the pancakes, I had and the scoop of melting butter on top during that one father sone breakfast.
For decades I resented him for his “failure” to be a “real” dad to me. I once went two years without communicating with either of my parents. The resentment faded into a smoldering antipathy as I aged.
Then I grew up.
During the last year I have minimized my workload and traveled the country as a nomad — living in an Airstream trailer. It can be lonely and I have taken calling my parents several times a week. Most likely I call them too much for their liking.
However, what I have come to realize is that my dad and I never really talked.
I never knew my dad.
I am getting to know him now — and I am lucky that he is still around to talk — to really talk.
To ask him about his time in the Army.
To ask him about his worries and concerns.
Which is exactly what I did yesterday and have been doing for several months. However, it was yesterday when we really connected.
My dad spent about two years as a commissioned Artillery officer — having participated in ROTC while at Boston College. He received basic artillery training and was then assigned to the Korean peninsula — specifically a post on the DMZ — for 13 months. The Korean War (or “Police Action”) had been in a state of suspended animation — a ceasefire — for the previous 5 years.
My dad got there in 1958. The shooting had stopped in 1953. However it was still a relatively new ceasefire and the brutality of that conflict was fresh in the minds of the senior NCOs and officers.
My dad mentioned Korea a few times during my childhood. I used to play with a set of binoculars he picked up in Japan on his way home from Korea. However, I assumed that because he missed the war it was a relatively uneventful, thus minimally impactful period of time for him.
And I was a resentful Gen Xer…so I took no interest in his life. I should have.
In a one-hour conversation with my dad yesterday, I learned more about him than I had in the previous 50+ years. Upon reflection, I am stunned by this. And saddened. And heartened. I did not miss my window of opportunity. I listened to my father talk about how war or no war…. his 13 months in Korea were perhaps the most impactful of his life.
He grew up in the Boston area in a typical Irish Catholic working-class family. He and his two brothers were the first to go to college. His dad had an 8th grade education and along with his mom, scraped by — through the depression — and sent 3 boys to college.
For my dad college was still in his hometown. Korea and all it entailed was anything but. Being plucked out of Boston, sent across the globe, billeted in spartan conditions in a country with a culture as far from the one he grew up with and told that although there was a ceasefire in effect, he had to be ready for a million North Korean soldiers to swarm the DMZ and attack him — likely kill him — at any moment. Well, that was impactful.
The remainder of his life — work, family, domestic life — nothing lived up to that 13 months for sheer exoticism and incredible uncertainty.
He told me stories — including the one he was most proud of: impressing senior officers and his own Commanding Officer with a stellar performance at the aforementioned artillery demonstration. His pride in this was both surprising (my dad NEVER once bragged to me about anything…ever) and contagious.
I felt overwhelming pride in my dad during that conversation.
We ranged to other topics. Our Boston family used to spend a couple of weeks each summer at Cape Cod. We always went to the same town. Same rental cottages. Did the same things. Same beaches, same restaurants. Same walks on the same tidal flats.
While I knew that his grandfather had a vacation “fish camp” in that town — again I never asked him about it — it meant little to me.
I learned that his granddad would drive him and his cousin down to Cape Cod in the 1940s. I learned that they’d swim in the town ponds. That my Great Grandfather had a small bass boat that he kept at a beach that during our more recent family vacations my dad would always take us to visit. I had no idea it’s where his grandfather used to take him to fish.
I never asked.
I never cared.
Like all of us, my dad misses seeing his family. Covid has robbed us and him of the ability to see his adult kids and grandchildren.
He was looking forward to the family getting together for a week in June — at Cape Cod. In the same rental cottage. On the same beach.
He was looking forward to sitting on the porch and reading while his grandkids unleashed chaos around him.
I used to find the fact that he’d just sit and read — and not engage with us as kids — annoying (at best). Now I understand that for him it is his greatest joy. To be in a place so significant to him…a place he has known since childhood….to be surrounded by family and to just be.
That trip is in jeopardy now due to some emergent health issues. My dad has skin cancer and may not be through his treatment in time to get to the Cape in 2021. He and my mom did — thankfully — receive their Covid vaccination and we thought this year would help make up for what was lost last year — but now it is again uncertain.
However, despite that uncertainty, I have gotten to know my dad.
For the first time we talked.
Even at this later stage of my life I find I still have the capacity to learn.
I have learned forgiveness.
I have learned that my dad, throughout my life, is a good man who was doing the best he could to raise and provide for a family. While not perfect, we three children turned out alright.
I look back on my own past failures and realize I too am a good man who was doing the best he could with the tools I had.
Covid, my dad’s health issues and the mellowing effect of age have taught me that deferring reconciliation gets you nothing but regret.
I learned that reconciling is — compared to waiting until it’s too late — is fulfilling and rewarding.