This week’s series is Stories About my Father. If this is your first visit to this series, please click here to begin at the beginning. Thank you for spending time in this little sliver of the web.
A slide show accompanies the post today, pictures of The Lady taken by Robert Johnson, author of The Quotidian Hudson. The visuals are a powerful accompaniment to this story about my father. Please follow this link to experience both pieces of the story. Thanks to Robert for covering this from his home in Manhattan, and to his daughter Abigail for helping him select the winning shots.
Blasting gusts slammed his face as he stood on deck. He had one night in New York, and he was comatose from lack of sleep and sensory overload. East Tennessee was a backwater otherworld compared to this place, this metropolis of booming experience. Trying to do it all in one day (and one night) had been a mistake. His head pounded, and his mouth still flamed from losing a bet in Chinatown. He didn’t know what he ate, but it was seasoned with the lake of fire. He leaned on the railing and opened his mouth to catch the cooling air.
Buildings rose like ragged teeth on the receding skyline. It looked foreign to his countrified eyes, nothing like the rolling greenness of home. He shifted, tugged at the waist of his uniform under his winter-issue coat. How could he possibly memorize such a tumbling jumble of unfamiliar sights? Squinting, he tried to count the spires and narrow rectangles as they undulated with the bobbing of the water. Movement made his eye innaccurate. Or were his mistakes caused by the tears clotting in the corners, threatening to spill mortification down his cheeks in front of everyone?
He was only eighteen. He’d never been away from home. Basic training followed by a swift commission to West Germany left his immature mind muddled. What sounded like an adventure a few short months ago had become………something else. He never thought about dying back then, never considered what that meant. The ease of home was something he took for granted. Now, standing on the deck of a ship, he could see his only touchstone to home disappearing, consumed by the foaming wake. It wasn’t home, but it was. The realization that he might never glimpse it again forced a tear from his left eye. He shifted to flick it away before anyone noticed.
He was scared, though he fought the admission. Who knew what lay on the other side of the teeming Atlantic, what remnants of war were left behind, forgotten for him to find? How would he function with people who were still living amongst the charred wreckage of a long-concluded war? What would he say the first time someone told him about family members who disappeared, or the hard choices they had to make in the pulsating point of a moment? What would it feel like to canvas a village of rubble and have the ground explode underneath him, to have his last seconds consumed by abandoned artillery? Would he remember, in his dying seconds, what home looked like? Would he be given time to conjure it again before he was gone?
Eighteen. Too young to face his own end. He hadn’t lived.
Wiping another tear, his eyes darted for a final image, something he could carry with him on his journey into the hell of what humans inflict upon one another. Liquid was replaced by light, an upraised beacon teasing him across the waves. He took in her serene face, the drape of her clothing, her arm proudly holding the torch.
The promise of Liberty. It was the reason for everything. Through his interminable tour, She would be the unifying image that carried him through.
Carried him home.
To my Father and all other veterans, thank you for the sacrifices you and your families made. Happy Veterans Day.