Sunday, July 21, 2024

Memories of Pearl Harbor on Veterans Day

I hadn’t planned to spend hours poring over mostly forgotten bits of history in my father’s old dust-covered foot locker tucked away and almost lost in the tobacco barn that lazy summer afternoon, but that’s exactly what happened. 

My father was a changed man when he returned home from Pearl Harbor two years after the bombs began to fall on that hellish Sunday morning. He was never the timid type, but now he was downright fearless. A passage from a yellowed letter I found brought profound insight into the adventurous, outgoing and fun-loving personality he had been known for.

“When you realize your life’s very likely about to end and there’s nothing you can do to prevent that from happening, an immediate change takes place within you; inexplicably you resign yourself to that end and begin to take whatever action seems appropriate with no regard for the consequences. A moment of reflection overcomes you and you feel a smile forming amid all that carnage because you suddenly and forcibly have just learned to truly appreciate life – for the first time in your life,” he had written. “Some people mistake that for bravery but I just don’t see it that way.”

Alongside stacks of ragged letters and telegrams he had sent home were a piece of shrapnel that had nearly taken his head off, a tin square of Rising Sun he had snipped off the side of a downed Zero, bloodied bullet casings, and a faded grass hula outfit. There was also a well-worn but still functional leather-covered flask, colorfully stamped with a hula girl dancing under a Hawaiian palm tree. It had once been filled with liquid courage, a daily dose of which had kept him mostly sane throughout the remainder of his witness to the war in the Pacific. Once home, he had emptied it one last time and tossed it into that dusty trunk, closing out an era in his life that was simultaneously both spectacular and tragic. To my knowledge, my father was never a drinker after that but he had kept the flask as a tangible and ironic reminder of the close friends and the good times that were lost forever on that tragic morning in “Paradise on Earth.”

The lessons my father learned in the war were many, but the main one was that life is far too short and unpredictable and therefore should be enjoyed to the utmost whenever possible. Enjoy your life, but don’t forget to pay tribute to our veteran fathers and uncles – heroes, and they were that, whether they thought of themselves in those terms or not – whose unhesitating bravery once saved the world. Thank you, Dad.