I Owe My Life To A Veteran… One Selfless Act
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we in the United States, and many of our friends and allies around the world, pause to remember and express gratitude to our military men and women for all that they do and have done to make the world safer for each of us. And today we paused again to say Thank You.
As the child of a sailor who made military service his career, then stayed on as a civilian after he retired, veterans define my life. My brothers each followed in service, one as a Marine, the next as a soldier. I recognize the jobs they do as individuals, and as a group. I highly respect the willingness to put their lives on the line for us around the world. But, more than that, I owe my own life to one selfless act of a veteran.
I wrote about receiving an album of photographs, artifacts from the past, and my attempts to make sense of the fragmented story in “Making Peace With The Darkness“. These vignettes are from that album.
There are still a million questions, but little by little I gather previously unknown bits and pieces and begin to unravel a story of a simple man in a complex time, making choices not many of us would understand or relate to today.
By looking at the war in context of the larger picture, the Navy emerges as a family to many who had lost their’s during the depression. A place of steady pay, honor and respect, shared work and camaraderie.
In reading my grandmother’s book, “No Dudes, Few Women” I learned why my father lied about his age to join.
As a single mother with two pre-teens (my father was 9, his sister 11), my grandmother sent her children away to live with an aunt so that she could marry the cowboy.
In her story of life on the Navajo Indian reservation, she remarks in a couple of places about “Sonny” growing up on a ranch. From my step-mother I heard that he was always an outsider at his aunt’s home, often blamed for pranks that his cousins pulled, like taking the prized stallion out late one night and having to be rescued by my father, who got punished for it. Ultimately, at 14 he had enough. He didn’t belong there and clearly wasn’t wanted.
He left the ranch on his own and wandered into “town” looking for man’s work. …At 14.
The story goes that he went to a taxi company and applied for a job as a driver. His grandfather had taught him to drive when he was 8, and so he was experienced and capable, as well as being tall for his age. The lady-owner, Jet, took an interest in this lanky kid and hired him on, under the one condition that he stay at the boarding house and eat all his meals with the drivers. He agreed and kept his word. He also developed a life long devotion to Miss Jet.
When the War broke out, however, every young man felt called or compelled to do his part, and my father was no exception, especially as he watched all his older companions joining up too.
While I’d like to romanticize this tale and say that he was a model citizen, we all know the straight arrow isn’t made from the bitterness of losing your mother, being an outcast and a street kid living by your wits. He had his bumps and bruises, black eyes and broken ribs. But Uncle Sam was a better, more fair uncle than the one he had left. He paid the price, then got on with business.
Oil was discovered on back on family property in west Texas and eastern New Mexico. The uncle and his spoiled cousins ended up pissing their inheritance away at the local saloon in town, never amounting to anything much.
The rugged west Texas and New Mexico life taught my father the value of family, even if he didn’t know how to channel the anger caused by its arbitrary and unfair rules. Military tours gave him structure. The Navy schooled him in life and work, allowing him to outlive many of his family who were too preoccupied to do their part. For that I am thankful again today.
But there is more. It goes deeper than that, more personal for me. When I say I literally owe my life to a veteran, it’s because of an incident that happened when I was yet to be born.
My mother married my father when she had two young children already. I guess there was some kind of deja vu in that. They shortly had a son, Donald. And, when he was about 6 months old, another was on the way. That would be me. My mother was not yet 23 years old.
Something awful happened and Donald was gone at 9 months. The doctors advised my mother to terminate her pregnancy while she still could- she was too young to handle the stress of being a solo parent (my father would soon go to sea again), the enormous grief, and still keep herself strong enough to have a viable pregnancy. What a choice to have to make!
To his credit, this War Veteran drew on the structure the Navy had provided him, the awareness of a world of suffering and grief, and he said “No.” Though he would do many self-centered things later on, things I wouldn’t understand, on this day, when it counted, he selflessly fought for me. When it mattered most to me, he said, “No.”
And that is why Veteran’s Day is important to me. I, literally, owe my life to a Veteran.
My gratitude to the US Navy for teaching a broken young man from west Texas how to keep a family together when it mattered on that one day in my life-to-be is deep and eternal. Thank you, on this day, and every day.