Monday, May 31, 2010
Gratitude for the Brave
This is my father as a young boy in South Dakota. He was, and is, fiercely patriotic - never discussed during my childhood but implicitly inferred.
Our family explored America in a motorhome called The Voyager. On the back window was just one sticker with an illustration of the American flag and a brief statement: 'Love It Or Leave It.' It made sense to me then, as it does today, which is why I live here.
My father grew up to be a dedicated Navy man, dismantling underwater mines and specializing in explosives. He has often said, "The Navy made a MAN outta me." It also made him the world's tidiest bed maker.
A few years ago, Dad was visiting me here in Denver and I took him to The Fort, a very special place in Morrison. More than just a fancy restaurant, it is also the home of the Tesoro Culture Center, which celebrates Western culture and traditions by keeping them alive in the present day.
As we ate our amazing meal of buffalo and elk chop, an older gentleman employed by The Fort wandered through the restaurant playing an Indian flute, which provided the ideal soundtrack for such a place. The musician came by our table and he and my Dad got to talking. Turns out, they had both served in the Korean War. (The man was in the Army.)
Now, intellectually I had known this, but Dad had never really discussed it with me on an emotional level. As true to his generation, he was very stoic and matter-of-fact about such matters. He did his duty and what's done is done - period.
But suddenly, is in his conversation with this man, I watched my father soften on the topic and he was sharing things I had never heard before. In witnessing the exchange, I kept quiet as a mouse. And then, the musician said to my father:
"I'm going to play something now - I don't play it very often because it makes me sad - but it's a grieving song the Lakota play for fallen warriors. I'm going to play it in honor of our brothers who died in Korea."
His flute suddenly took on a haunting tone quite different from the lighter songs he'd been playing around the restaurant. I couldn't help but note the significance of choosing a song from the Lakota tribe as they are primarily from the Black Hills of South Dakota where my father was born. His grandfather, Adam, even spoke some Lakota.
As the man played, I thought I saw some moisture around his eyes, which were closed, but it was nothing compared to my father, who was openly weeping. Clearly, he'd been carrying that special grief for his fallen brothers around inside him but rarely let it surface.
As the song concluded, my father thanked the man, who said, "No, thank YOU, brother." They shook hands roughly, a bit longer than normal, and the musician went back to his strolling.
My father wiped his face dry with the linen napkin and seemed overwhelmed by his sudden emotion. "Sorry, honey, I just ...don't .... I don't know, I wasn't expecting..." I assured him it was a perfectly natural reaction to such an emotional song and we returned to our dinner. He talked about other things but every once in awhile, he'd get quiet and shake his head, still in disbelief over what to him was a public outburst.
On the drive home, he blurted: "I'm so embarrassed. I don't normally cry like that in public." (I'd only seen him cry once before, when I was 12 and and he told me that he and my mother were divorcing.) I spent the rest of drive home assuring him that, for gosh sakes, I am his daughter and if you can't cry in front of family than where? (Well, if you're me, than the answer would be anywhere and everywhere.)
He was mostly surprised that he still felt that strongly and deeply about the men he'd served with, what they had fought for and the bond that had formed. "I just haven't thought about them in years," he said, "And yet, when he was playing, it was .... like it was yesterday."
Today is for the honorable fallen, and all the tears - expected and unexpected - that carry them down the river.