Monday, May 29, 2006

What Didn't You Do in the War, Daddy?

Memorial Day thoughts: Neither myself nor my dad was a draft evader. But we both were draft avoiders.

I didn't do it on purpose. I fell into draft avoidance. I wanted to go to grad school long before the United States involvement in Vietnam was something to worry about. My wanting to go to graduate school was motivated by fear all right, but fear of teaching high school students, not of dying in a foreign war.

In 1969, during my fourth year at Duke -- the last year I was a full-time grad student -- they instituted the draft lottery. My number was 206, and the Roanoke County draft board came nowhere near that number.

I don't think my dad avoided on purpose either. When the U.S. got involved in World War II, my dad was: a) already married with one child; b) already working for the Norfolk and Western Railroad, and thereby doing a job vital to the war effort and automatically exempt c) pretty much clutched by the short hairs by my mom, who, I surmise, was not about to send him off to war as some Roman matron might.

And thus I came into existence in 1944, an arrival remotely possible even if my dad had joined one of the armed services -- but not bloody likely, given all the obstacles his serving would have created for that particular sperm and that particularly egg attaining proximity.

This little story has only the smallest of points. I don't recall an atmosphere of shame existing about my dad's failure to serve. He had five brothers of draftable age, and as far as I know none of them served. Four of them were working for the railroad, too, since Roanoke, Virginia, was where the Norfolk and Western had its headquarters. In a railroad town, having kept the freight moving during wartime -- in particular the coal from West Virginia -- was its own justification.

Also, my father had good luck in brothers-in-law. One of my mother's brothers was a captain in the Air Force but he wasn't a pilot, just some kind of glorified file clerk, and he came home from England with syphilis. Her second brother had a railroad deferment -- he got the job through his father, my grandfather, who was a minor N&W executive, which is how my father got his job in the first place, putting a whole new layer of moral nuance on all this -- but he also had a serious drinking problem.

My grandfather was head of the local draft board. He thought going in the army would help my uncle Linwood with his drinking, so my grandfather revoked his son's draft exemption.

My uncle died in boot camp of a heart attack. There were no war heroes in my immediate family in whose shadow my father was forced to stand.

All that being true, although I wondered how my father felt about not serving in World War II and although I was certainly glad he didn't serve -- that's how I felt as soon as I got my head around how the zygote is created -- I never felt comfortable asking him how he felt about not serving.

Probability and probabilities. I figured there was a chance the question would make him feel bad. What I wonder now is if he had a story in mind all along, polished, perfected and ready to go, and if he thought my silence was not respect but something else.


Anonymous said...

Are you saying you're yellow? Neither Bill or George have gone that far, and Teddy said he was drunk at the time and doesn't remember.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

In the words of Dick Cheney, I'd ask you to apologize but I haven't shot you in the face yet.

G Pabst said...

My Dad volunteered for the Navy (I found the paperwork after Mom died) and was turned down. He finally made the Army with a recommendation from his Supervisor on the kill-floor of the Swift Meats plant.

Imagine - turned down by the Navy, but getting into the Army after proving his skill at mammal death-dealing.

When I went to grad school in history I developed great research "chops." Turns out I come from a long line of warriors. While the family (Mom's side) fled England just ahead of their Civil War, I'm nonetheless (a distant) cousin to Cromwell.

My Irish DNA is still Troubled.

And Nathaniel Heaton served in the New Hampshire militia during the Revolution - meaning that my Pilipina and Latina nieces qualify for the DAR. I love that part.

Homer Heaton, his son, served in the Navy during the War of 1812.

Come our Civil War, one ancestor died in the Black Hills chasing the Sioux back home and another was with the 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry in the Army of the Mississippi - Vicksburg, with Sherman across Georgia and the Carolinas, et al. They led the Grand Parade of Sherman's Army into Washington. Sam Clayton joined as a 17 year old Private and was mustered out in Louisville as a Sergeant.

We missed WWI - my maternal grandpa too young and my paternal grandpa too German, I think.

And then to Dad, and his brothers, went to WWII.

He never went overseas but, much to my surprise, it left a real mark.

He was in anti-aircraft artillery. And I remember seeing a field of cement pads near La Jolla that were the last of his post, Camp Callan. I was 15 or so and we were on vacation.

I told my daughter, who went to UC/San Diego (which is in that northern suburb) that her grandfather kept La Jolla safe for democracy.

And while neither I nor any of my five brothers "served," and we were obnoxiously loud about why, Dad never voiced an opposition.

But when he died - eleven years ago - we were all astonished that he had chosen the National Cemetery in Arizona (a bleak and windy Mesa, as I recall) for his resting place.

The guy (and Mom, too, when you think about it) left us room to be idiots - aka: think for ourselves.

Both my parents were Republicans - and their families had been for generations.

Nontheless, we were free to become union/Negro/socialized-medicine loving Democrats.

THAT'S the GOP I'd like to see come back! We lived in peace in those days, if not entirely in harmony.

And Roosevelt was right about not having "anything to fear as fear itself."

Anonymous said...

The comment was "nothing to fear but fear itself."