It was an evening ritual. I would sit on my parents’ bed as my father methodically prepared his military uniform for the next day. A kind of reverence was at play in the way he brushed the slightest bit of lint from the jacket, his fingers skimming the pleat of the pant. Dad had the keenest vision: a hawk’s eyes.
There were nights the ritual was brief: a simple inspection and brushing were all that was necessary. Then there were the nights the uniform was fresh from the cleaners. Spread out before me on the bed, the jacket became an artist’s canvas, laid bare awaiting paint and inspiration—only the picture never changed.
Dad arranged the wings and ribbons over the left breast of the jacket. He had executed this so many times before, I believe he could have done it blindfolded. Each ribbon bar represented a medal. The Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was the one he was most proud of having been awarded, with its bands of blue, red, and white signifying singular heroism and voluntary actions in the face of danger while in aerial combat. Next was the Air Medal, with its broad band of ultramarine bounded on each side by stripes of golden orange—the original colors of the Army Air Corps. Sitting atop the ribbon were one silver and two bronze oak leaves. The colorful European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal (EAME) with one silver and two bronze oak leaves on the epaulets. At the center of the ribbon, a broad stripe of green was flanked by pinstripes of green, white, black, and red. As he pierced the gabardine with the ribbon’s prongs, Dad explained that the green, white, and red were the colors of Italy, where he had been based during World War II, and the black-white-black pinstripes represented Germany. The ribbon served as a reminder of the Axis powers of Europe he helped defeat.
I relished the mystery, the symbolism, the routine. Dad nestled the DFC into place after the Legion of Merit and before the Airman’s Medal. The EAME ribbon took its spot before the WWII Victory Medal. When the adornment was complete, Dad hung his Air Force “Blues” on a wooden valet, trousers folded over a bar. The hanger filled out the shoulders so that it looked as though a body was in there somewhere.
I remember being in awe of my father at the time and never tiring of my role as a silent participant. Yet as I grew, so did my curiosity. I was a competitive swimmer and I had earned medals too. Those oak leaf clusters intrigued me. One evening, my question broke the quiet. “What are all those acorns and leaves for?”
Dad had described what each medal stood for, but what about the extra accoutrement? He explained how the oak leaves multiplied the medal: the silver leaves represented having been awarded the same medal six times, and the bronze ones a subsequent one or more times. The ribbons were colorful, but the medals were works of art. All of them were cast in bronze and carefully stored away in the top drawer of Dad’s dresser. The DFC has narrow-at-the-center arms that flare in a curve, providing a base for angled rays upon which a four-bladed propeller sits. The Air Medal is a rose with an eagle in the forefront, its wings extended, carrying two lightning bolts in its talons. The scene etched into the EAME medal was designed to portray elements of the US Army, Navy, and Army Air Corps: troops amassed on a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) landing craft and an aircraft. If he wore all the medals at once, he teased, he wouldn’t be able to stand up straight. I laughed as he mimed being bent over from the bulk of all the brass. Dad was always clowning around.
The weight of the bravery, and the recognition of that bravery, was held in those medals. Years later, when he at last began to tell me his stories, Dad focused mostly on the fun parts and left out the tales of terror and responsibility he felt for the men in his crew and the job he had joined up to do. It was as if the more dramatic memories were still too painful to resurrect. If I asked anything he wasn’t comfortable answering, his face would darken, he’d knit his brows, and I would retract my inquiry before he shut me down completely. He just wasn’t ready to go to some places in his memories.
Dad grew up an only child in a Midwestern upper-middle-class family. He was very close to his parents. When World War II began for the United States, Dad was seventeen and a senior in high school. Living in Chicago, he was exposed to all the news stories, banners, and posters calling for young men to join the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. What did he know of hardship and death? Neither had come to him yet. Still, now eighteen years old, he made a big choice and followed his heart into battle. He wanted his team to win, and he figured he was just the guy to do it.
Ours was that quintessential fifties-sixties family, fully engaged in the television or stereo, with one manmade sound or another prevalent. Calm moments were rare, and time alone with my larger-than-life father was rarer still, yet Dad didn’t mind my watchful presence. I liked his quiet, implicit acceptance. And I preferred the silence. It spoke of an importance I could know little about. His participation and his courage were wrapped in the hush. Was he riding some memory from World War II, thinking of his earlier days as a bombardier, reliving tense moments in the air with his crew, his buddies, or remembering the day he received his first Air Medal?
The more aware I became of the fight as a whole, about the war and its outcome, the more my curiosity infused the silent space between us. What, I wanted to know, was he thinking? What was he feeling? Dad didn’t offer many details. Yet, seeing those medals and ribbons and bars and clusters and finding out what each of them meant, it wasn’t hard to conclude that my father had done something meaningful years before I was born, and I have held that belief all the days and years that have followed.
In the shadows late at night, the uniformed valet soldier stood at attention. Once, deep in the belly of the night, I slipped into my parents’ room seeking comfort from a haunting dream. My mother sensed me kneeling by her side and woke to listen to my imaginings. Like conspirators, we spoke in whispers so as not to wake my father. The jacket, with its accoutrement placed just so, seemed to lean in to catch the conversation.
Beneath the aroma of my mother’s lotions, potions, and Tabu perfume, beneath the bold essence of my father’s Old Spice, the bedroom carried the scent of history. Mystery was woven into the threads of that uniform that smelled of dry-cleaning solution, or Dad, or both.
Time pushed us on; the gaps in our evenings together grew for a variety of reasons, which made those nights I could be on hand for the decorating of the “Blues” even more a treasure. It was on one of those last evenings in the house on Whippoorwill Lane, when I was eighteen—before my parents’ divorce, before my father’s retirement, before life carried us in opposite directions—when I began to ask all my deepest questions. And here, on the following pages, are the tales my father shared with me. The tales of my father’s coming of age coinciding with my own.