This weekend little American flags will fly over the graves of my father and the 30,000 other servicemen buried at the Presidio of San Francisco. Having the best view any dead person could hope to have was one of the perks of Army service, my dad joked. Also, his ashes were laid to rest near Civil War Generals, Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo Soldiers and a Union spy.
Now that he’s been gone nearly 23 years, I hope it is okay on this Memorial Day to remember how irreverent my Dad was about the military aspects of being a military man.
Growing up in the Army during the Viet Nam war was a recipe for cognitive dissonance, particularly with a mom who thought the Officers Wives Club was a “crock” and a dad who took off his uniform at the end of each day and poured a gin and tonic while muttering about the "horses asses” responsible for the war.
Dad was not a foot soldier or war strategist or drill sergeant, he was an orthopedic surgeon. The military had paid his way through one of the finest medical schools and for that he was grateful. He was good at what he did, and rose through the ranks for 20 years, saving some lives and many limbs. His job, mostly, was to stitch, staple and cement back together the war wounded and, far too often, to amputate the limbs of 18-year-old kids. He was a patriot, but more pacifist than gung-ho.
Master of the wry aside, the quiet chuckle and twinkling eye, the almost imperceptible eye roll, he never railed, yelled, ordered or commanded. When he was angry with his daughters, all he had to do to bring us to shame and obedience was state our full names. The surgical residents he trained nicknamed him “whispering Jesus,” because he was so quiet and they adored him. Though he wore it proudly, the uniform he wore did not define him. He was happy when able to grow his hair long and never again be referred to by rank.
The day I snuck off to an anti-war protest in Golden Gate Park, my dad was applying for his first civilian job, his 20 years almost up. It was a weekday afternoon, so he still wore that uniform, the rank of “full bird” on his shoulders. As he left the medical office where he’d negotiated the next phase of his life, a woman spat on him. “War monger!” she shouted.
“What should I have done, quit when the war started? What would that have done, deprived the Army of one more doctor?” That’s all he said about that at dinner. I said nothing about the protest, but felt both angry and ashamed.
On Memorial Day I honor all who served -- the privates and the generals and the seamen and the SEALS, the pilots and mechanics and quartermasters, the medics and Marines. Our country was and is made safer and better by their service. I honor their families, who sacrifice home and ease and security for the demands of a military life. I honor my father and all the other men and women whose allegiance was not blind, but who served their country well.