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A military manPosted Saturday, May 24, 2008, at 10:32 AM
My dad was not a Disneyland or Ward Cleaver kind of father.
He was born in 1917, the second child of four, and the older of two sons. His mother was just 18 when she married his father, a sometime circus performer and veteran of the Spanish-American War, an electroplater by trade, who was then 40 years old.
During the Depression, Dad left high school after only a few months to help support his family, casting aside his plan to go to college and someday become an attorney. When World War II began, his younger brother quickly enlisted, so my father stayed home for another year before enlisting in the Army Air Corps.
He and my mother were married in Dyersburg, Tenn., in 1943, and after spending the war years in Libya and Italy, he came back home shortly after V-E Day, in June 1945, went back to his old job, and in a few short years became the father of two girls.
When his union went on strike a few years later, eventually breaking the company, he solved his unemployment problem by enlisting in the newly-formed Air Force.
It was the best decision he ever made.
He was perfectly suited to military life.
It had order and structure and hierarchy. He didn't always like taking orders, but he had a keen appreciation for their need. He didn't always like the men under whom he served, but he understood their authority.
He was a good teacher and a wonderful example, by their own account, for those under him. His kindness and almost fatherly attention to the younger servicemen who worked for him was, they said years after, deeply appreciated. Long after his retirement, they called or wrote, asking again his advice, or just touching base.
My sister and brothers and I didn't see in our father what others saw.
Once we had passed the point of thinking he knew everything in the whole world, he didn't interact with us very much.
He didn't show up at school events, often didn't go to parent-teacher meetings or conferences, didn't root for our high school football and basketball teams and didn't go to the games. The only thing that interested him at all was our report cards and our behavior in school.
When my sister and I, older than our two brothers by many years, finished Driver's Ed, we asked if we could get licenses. He said, "Sure." But when we asked if we could then drive the family car, he said, "Hell, no. You think I'm crazy?"
We were not surprised by his answer -- only surprised that he used so many words. His first answer to any request was usually very short.
"Can I … ?" "Would you … ?" Can we go to … ?"
Almost invariably, and unless my mother intervened on our behalf, the answer was always the same.
He was not an easy man.
He had firm opinions and quick answers when faced with disagreement. He was very good at lobbing conversational "bombs" at a family get-together and then retiring to another room in the house while the verbal battle raged in his absence.
At one Christmas dinner, he said, in the presence of several older family members already collecting social security checks, "Social security is just another form of welfare."
The brief moment of stunned silence was swiftly broken with cries of rage.
After listening to the outcry for a few minutes, he quietly left the dinner table and took a seat in the living room, while the argument blazed on.
If he was in a particularly contentious mood, which was often, he'd go back to the table and do it again.
And yet, he obviously had a softer side, one that only a few in the family ever saw.
He once took ballroom dancing lessons so he could dance at a cousin's wedding. He loved the ballet and attended as often as he could, sometimes accompanied by another cousin. He loved jazz, and made frequent solo trips to New York City, not far from his New Jersey home, to enjoy it live. He wrote dozens and dozens of letters to people all over the world, doing genealogical research on his family. He was very intelligent, always interested in learning new things, an avid reader.
It wasn't until very late in his life that I and my siblings could begin to appreciate him as a real person, apart from being our father.
Difficult as he often was, he gave us all experiences that marked our lives in ways we may never be able to fully appreciate.
At a time when I am certain money was very, very tight, we had a subscription to "American Heritage" magazine and to TIME. We had a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia. If we asked a question, he'd point to those books and magazines and say, "Look it up."
He encouraged us to go to the library, to read, to know, to explore and to learn. His own curiosity about everything rubbed off on all of us.
His military career took us to places we would otherwise never have visited. We spent three years in Washington, D.C., two years in Libya, eight in Nebraska, three in Puerto Rico and two more in Oklahoma.
We traveled by ship, by plane, by car and by rail. We saw the Rock of Gibraltar, the ruins of Pompeii, snake charmers in Casablanca, the ancient ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. We played cricket and swapped Superman comics for Punch with our British friends, spent the 4th of July watching fireworks from the shores of the Mediterranean, learned Arabic and Italian, weathered sandstorms and plagues of locusts and heard the daily calls to prayer by the mezzuins, knew what Ramadan and the Koran were and saw the Sahara Desert.
All of these are things that most children see in textbooks, while we were lucky enough to live in the midst of it.
At this time of year, between Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day and Father's Day, my father is often in my thoughts. I still puzzle over our relationship and wonder if he lived the life he wanted.
I think his life was not what he had planned. But that is the way it is with most people. We make our plans and then our life unfolds and we live it as it comes, as best we can. The very best we can hope for is that we always do what one person can do in one day and go on to the next, trying to do better.
My father served his country in three wars, rose to the top of the enlisted ranks and was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal at his retirement. Whatever he did with the rest of his life, the years he spent in the military were the best on every level, the time of his life of which he was most proud and justly so.
As you celebrate Memorial Day this year and in the years to come, please take a moment or two to remember that our country came to this day because of the millions of men and women who chose a military career. In peace and in war, it is their personal sacrifices we must appreciate and honor.
"Guard zealously your right to serve in the Armed Forces, for without them, there will be no other rights to guard."
President John F. Kennedy, 1962
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.