This is the flag that was presented to my mother following my father’s memorial service. It was presented by a young corporal in dress uniform from the honor guard. His hands were shaking, and there were tears in his eyes.
During World War II, my father served primarily in North Africa and Italy. Those years were arguably the most significant of his ninety-five, yet he seldom spoke about them. Only in his last year, my mother said, did he begin to talk about that time. One of the things he did say was that never did a day go by when he didn’t think about it.
My father was distant, non-communicative by nature. Then came Vietnam, and it got worse. We barely spoke for a decade. I was an activist. One day my mother was driving to the school where she taught first grade, listening to the radio, when a story came on about a major anti-war demonstration at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. According to the radio, I was the one who organized it. That wasn’t entirely accurate. I just happened to be the spokesperson.
My father was a civil service construction inspector. Among other things, he inspected missile silos. He had a high security clearance. When the FBI investigated me, as they did thousands who were vocal in their criticism of the War in Vietnam, they interviewed him. I’ve always wondered what he said. If I file an FOI request, I might be able to find out.
As with most of his generation, my father could not comprehend the “anti-Americanism” of my generation. How could we debase their sacrifice? What the hell did his generation fight WWII for?
Conversely, my generation could not comprehend the willingness of his generation to support what we saw as a quickstep toward totalitarianism and repression. Watergate was the clincher. For an American president to attempt to subvert the electoral process was vile. Just about anything else you could get away with, including the assassination of foreign leaders, but to try to undercut a presidential election was beyond the pale. I still don’t think Nixon should have been pardoned. What the hell did his generation fight WWII for?
On the idea that you should simply do what your government tells you and shut up, he never backed down. Neither did I. I believed, and still do, in the responsibility of the individual to stand in the way of wrong, as his generation had done in the trenches of Europe. I believe in that even when the perpetrator of the wrong is the U.S. government. He and I never agreed about that. We never even agreed to disagree. Eventually, however, we did put all that to the side and focus on things we could agree on. Like the Denver Broncos. Thank God for the NFL. Thank God for John Elway.
My father and I never came to an agreement on what it means to be an American. And that, for anyone who doesn’t know, is exactly what it means to be an American.