Today is Veterans' Day, the eleventh of November, again. As a kid, it meant not much more than a day out of school and that most businesses were closed. It was about a parade and seeing old men in funny hats adorned with medals and emblems, and lots of flag waving, and that was about it for me. That all changed three years ago, on another Veterans’ Day, 11/11/11. It became the day that my super hero, and veteran dad, died.
My dad was a veteran of the Korean War, a war not so well known about and overshadowed by the larger World Wars which preceded it, but it was a fiercely fought duel non the less, and my dad was a paratrooper in the infantry there. This past history of my dad was all totally background noise in my life, growing up. It was in my father’s past, irrelevant to the present and immediate moment of my own life at that time. I recall mornings where I heard that dad had spent some nightmare time reliving his battles there, and my mother found him, still in his sleep, standing in a shooting stance firing away at some invisible Chinese soldiers. There was usually a bit of a joke about his having eaten too much spicy food the night before to evoke the specters that needed shooting, and all of the horror that he lived with in his memory was glossed over and taken lightly by the young girl that I was then. I really never knew, nor could I comprehend, what it meant to have been a war veteran as he, and so many others had been.
I really knew very little about the Korean War and have to admit I know less about it than I should, given that my father fought there and nearly died before helping me into my existence a few years after it was over. I saw daily, the photos on the wall of my cigar smoking dad, holding his machine gun, wearing a ridiculously tall hat, smiling with his comrades and buddies, waiting for the next fight. There was the shadow box that held his medals for bravery, valor, and actions above and beyond the call, etc. I thought everybody’s dad had the same version of memorabilia and life stories in their house. It was on a trip to Scotland, when I was nearly done with high school, that his reality set in to me and I began to understand a little.
My dad had taken us on a trip to England and Scotland. True to his typical form we had stayed at the Connaught, caught the semi finals at Wimbledon with the Queen and the Queen mum sitting a few shoulders away, had enjoyed the wonders of the South Audley Street Pub, and covered the highlights of London before heading north to Edinburgh. We were going there to see the military tattoo, a large festival celebrating Scotland’s veterans and their military history. At this point I did not even know that the Scots had done any fighting with anyone but themselves after Robert the Bruce and Bonny Prince Charlie, but I was willing to be along for the ride, as it seemed to mean a lot to my dad for him to share it with us.
The afternoon before the big night time show that was to be held in the Edinburgh Castle, we were wandering through the castle’s museum and dad found a room where the names of soldiers who had died fighting in the Korean War were noted in huge open books laying on pedestals. Finding no relevance to my life, I wandered around in a distracted and bored sort of way that one does in similar situations, and noted the differences in all of the tartan plaids that hung on the stone walls.
There was a docent of this castle’s museum standing in the room with all of us, saying nothing, just standing, fully decked out in the garb of the Black Watch regiment, kilt, knives, tall socks, sash and all. He was a red head and had a full, unkempt red beard to match. His eyes were a fierce cold blue and his presence was one of power and strength. Gradually my dad and him began to chat.
There are connections in life that are random and some are destined. I believe that this connection on this afternoon in the castle was perhaps both. As this powerful Scot and my dad chatted, their stories became more involved, and they realized suddenly and with a bit of shock, that they had met before.
The story goes that on one assignment back in Korea, my dad was to lead the troops under his command, and to take a fairly random, barren and treeless hill, which was being held by the north Korean army and by the Chinese army who was there to help the north. It was a piece of real estate that the US army badly wanted and it was basically a suicide mission but orders are what they are, and so off my dad led his group in that effort.
For hours they fought in the mud and smoke and were getting their numbers cut down to nearly nothing. Retreat wasn’t in my dad’s vocabulary and so they continued to slog it out doing their duty and being gunned down by the dozens. Just when all hope was nearly lost, then, through the smoke, chaos, and flying bullets, came the sound of bagpipes playing “Scotland the Brave”. In a surreal moment, up from their rear, marching into the fray and confusion was a division of the Black Watch Guard coming in to relieve and assist my dad’s group in their attempt to take the hill.
Dressed in the famous black and green tartan kilts, and with the sound of bag pipers’ and fife drums’ continual drone together the US soldiers, and my dad, and these Scots took that hill and won the day.
The irony of the moment of that day in Edinburgh, was the realization that the commander of the Black Watch group that saved my dad’s life, turned out, was now this docent, here, improbably talking with my dad in the Edinburgh Castle some twenty plus years fast forwarded. They had, indeed, met before. My dad and his kilted savior, left us and retired to a local pub for the afternoon.
I miss my dad today, and every day, but will always have my memories refreshed on Veteran’s Day with his declaration three years ago that on 11/11/11, it was a good day to die. He was an old soldier at that point and had fought many battles of many types through out his years, and when the time came he was ready and he went.
To all of the veterans, and to my dad, I want to say thank you.