Thursday Nights with Dad

Dad and I used to go the movies together when I was a kid and we were stationed in Soesterberg, Netherlands. Thursday night at the Camp New Amsterdam Air Force Base theater was westerns and war movies. All my buddies and their dads went. Mom would make grilled cheese sandwiches for dad and me at home, then we’d have popcorn and soda – and candy – at the movies. I always sat down in front with my pals, while dad sat with his friends in the back. John Wayne looked so tall filling the screen as seen from the point of view of a kid with his head tilted way back and stuffing popcorn in his mouth.

Willy and Dad Christmas in Holland 1966

Dad and me, Christmas 1967, Amersfoort, Netherlands

I loved the war movies and thought it was cool to be a Soldier, Marine, or Sailor. I didn’t know much about war at that age, even though the war in Vietnam was kicking into high gear. I also didn’t know WWII films were mostly propaganda, intended, naturally, to make folks back home despise the enemy and love our heroic fathers, sons and brothers. War was seen from the 20,000 foot level on the big screen. When death was shown, it was a heroic death if our boys, and a cowardly death if the enemy. The thinking was that the fighting men needed the support of the folks back home, and everyone needed good morale. So movies glamorized war, minimized death, and made a lot of noise.

dad-at-seventeen

Dad, seven months before he turned seventeen and joined the Navy.

Dad was a Sailor in the Pacific in WWII, a gunner’s mate, and fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. That’s his battle-damaged ship, an LST, at the  top of this post, sailing into San Francisco Bay. He was nineteen during the Battle of Okinawa. Only nineteen. After the war, dad married, joined the Air Force, and started a family.

dad_-bootcamp

Boot Camp, Great Lakes, IL

It never occurred to me later in life to ask dad what passed through his mind – or the minds of his buddies – while watching those movies. Years later we saw Patton together and Midway too; dad didn’t avoid war movies but, with few exceptions, he never spoke about his war experiences. He explained to me once what firing a salvo from a battleship meant, but that was about it. I was curious, but never pressed him to talk about it. I don’t know why. I guess I thought there was plenty of time to ask those questions later.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized how deep an impact the war had had on him. I invited him to tour my aircraft carrier when he and mom visited me in Norfolk, Virginia in the early nineties. He came to the ship, but wouldn’t go on board. That’s when I understood my father. Boarding my ship would have brought too many memories back: the death of his buddies, and the near-destruction of his ship.

20161001_144133

Mom and Dad, April 1947, San Francisco

To work through my dad’s experiences, I wrote an essay two years ago that pieced together what little I knew from him, and what little my mom would share. As I wrote, I came to understand that his entire post-war life was molded by WWII. I titled the essay Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty.

Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty. “Eighteen Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty.” That’s how many days my father lived after the war. That’s also how many times my father died after the war. That’s how many times he fell asleep each night praying he would not wake up and relive the war in his mind, only to die again and again and again until, one day, finally, he died and stayed dead. Dad went to war a boy. He came home an old man.

That’s what war did to my dad when he was just nineteen years old.

I will have only one regret someday when I depart this life: That I didn’t know my Dad until it was too late.

I love you, dad.
Your son,
Willy

mom-and-dad

Mom and Dad, Tampa Florida

24 thoughts on “Thursday Nights with Dad

  1. Nickel Boy Graphics

    Will, this is such a bitter-sweet post. The men and women who served in World War II were remarkable. While we may look back and call them “The Greatest Generation,” they were extremely humble about their service. They just looked at it as what they had to do. They taught us so many lessons about what it means to be an American. You obviously learned those lessons, part of your dad’s legacy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Will Pennington

      Thank you! I’ve written quite a bit about my dad – the two links in that post explain my feelings. Another essay, As You Lay Dying, describes our relationship and my apologies to dad as he lay dying from a heart attack.
      He told me he was proud of me. I never told him how proud I was of him. I wish more people didn’t have to learn the hard way. But, I think most people are like me.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Kris

    I am learning this with mom. I have heard so many stories I had no idea existed. When she is on more drugs than usual, she rambles and wow!!!! I have a ready pen and paper. Some of them, I’ve transferred to the laptop. I should probably do that. Mom was just a kid growing up during the war, but those years were fascinating to follow. The segregation and anger and verve for life that swept over all people. The fight to live, no matter who you were. I’m also discovering the woman other people know is NOT the one who I lived with. It is sad to see how nice she was to everyone else and how mean she was/is to her two daughters. Crazy stuff. GREAT story here. I’ll look for your other essays.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. claudiarachel

    This is a really beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. I think a lot of men of a certain generation also could not speak about their experience in war. I have a letter from my grandfather I treasure. He was in Egypt in the army in WW2. But it was all facts, a hint of nostalgia for the people he served with but I am not sure he knew how to speak about his feelings about it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will Pennington

      I’m happy you could relate to it. We always hear that men don’t share their feelings, and there is some truth to that, but when it comes to war and things, I think it’s more than simply not sharing. It’s fear of facing it again; it’s honor in not betraying the circumstances of their buddies fates or their memory; it’s not understanding why anyone who wasn’t there would want to know what happened. It happened, friends were killed, it’s over. Life goes on. It’s also hard to express the feeling of camaraderie between soldiers and sailors in time of war. I find it hard to explain. Thank you for your comment. I enjoyed it very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Garden Dog

    Thank you, for sharing your story. I love those old photos, the stories I bet your father has. Thank him for his service, he is great appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. writealineblog

    Wow! Will, my eyes teared up as I read this. So emotional, I can only try to imagine what he went through. That’s why I try to avoid war movies- the thought of someone’s dad, brother, uncle, husband, fiancé, nephew or son lying in the dirt, not coming home again is too much too bear. And some of these wars are senseless and could’ve been avoided if not for the ego of men in power. Thanks for sharing this lovely read with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will Pennington

      You’re welcome. I’ve written quite a bit about my dad, and about our relationship. I’m still searching for the man beneath the dad, but it becomes more difficult with the passage of time and the passing of those who knew him. I cherish the parts of him that are part of me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Russel Ray Photos

    I never got to know my dad at all because he killed himself in 1961 when I was 6. Although he was in the Air Force 1950-1954, it wasn’t any type of post-military stress syndrome. It was cheating wife syndrome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will Pennington

      I’m sorry I didn’t respond sooner.
      I’m sorry too about your parents. That’s a rough thing to go through when you’re a kid, especially a 6-year old kid.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      Will

      Like

  7. Em.

    By the time I had finished reading, I realized I had goosebumps.
    Beautifully expressed Will 🙂
    Its a irony of life that by the time we mature enough, the chance is already gone. However hard you may try, life does leave you with a few regrets !

    Liked by 1 person

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