In the late 1990s, my Dad, who had just turned 70, was being interviewed by a very young nurse. She read in his record that he was a veteran. She asked which war he had served in: “Desert Storm?” No, Dad said. Guess again. “Vietnam?” No. “Well, then, which one?” Dad told her that he had served in the Civil War. “I’ve never met a Civil War veteran!” she exclaimed. Later, my Mom heard this nurse telling her colleagues, “Did you know that Mr. Bieler was in the Civil War?”
Naturally I’ve never let Dad forget this, and being my Dad he enjoys his status as a veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic. Recently I found a postcard of a cave wall in Virginia in which Union and Confederate soldiers had carved their names. I added IRVING and drew a Star of David after it and mailed it to him. Dad told me later that he was reading the names on the cave wall when he came to this Irving guy and thought how about that, some poor bastard back then had the same stupid name as me….Wait a minute!
I can make jokes about my father’s military history now, just as he’s always done, but it was a different story in my childhood. My friend Tommy’s father was the captain of a PT boat in World War II, just like John F. Kennedy. One day Tommy showed me his medals, which lay jumbled in Mr. Monahan’s sock drawer. That night when Dad came home from work, I demanded to know where his medals were. I’d heard Dad’s stories about the war, but they were all about goofing off, being a Jew in Texas, and how bad the chow was. What had he really done?
It turns out that my father wasn’t holding anything back. Dad wasn’t Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Saunders, or Sgt. York. All he wanted to do was follow his older brothers, my uncles Morry and Eddie, into the Army Air Corps. He tried to enlist toward the end of 1944, but was turned away for having flat feet. (The boys from his school who were accepted disappeared that December in the Battle of the Bulge.) He was drafted in March of 1945 and sent to basic training with the exact same feet.
When Hitler got word that he was now facing all three Bieler boys, he committed suicide. Dad proceeded through his training, first in Colorado, then in Texas, reached the rank of corporal, and in classic Army fashion was ordered to hurry up and wait for his deployment overseas. He was never deployed, and then Japan surrendered. The only danger Dad faced on a regular basis was from the rickety Indian motorcycle he drove in his duties as messenger on an air base, and he always claimed that was fun. No combat, no medals except the one they handed out for behaving yourself and the one he claimed to have for goldbricking.
This is a tough truth to accept when you’re a small boy in the 1960s and World War II is being re-fought every night on television and your friend up the street has a war hero for a father, though even I could see that Mr. Monahan was not a very warm person and was rarely around and in fact the Monahans got divorced a few years later and they all moved away. My Dad was usually available on weekends to play ball or skip rocks or just drive around and look at stuff.
I’m not judging Mr. Monahan as a father. I don’t know what hell he went through in the middle of the Pacific in a plywood boat in which he was supposed to attack the Imperial Japanese Navy. My Dad has his flaws like all Dads and you could say he’s led a largely boring life, but I can’t claim that my life has been significantly less flawed or more exciting. I’m just happy I still have my father around so I can ask him if they used hardtack instead of matzo during those Civil War seders.
Somewhere around the time Dad tangled with his poorly educated nurse, and maybe because of it, he put on his first “WWII Veteran” baseball cap. I think that over time, the WWII vets began to appreciate that their war had been the biggest thing they’d ever been involved in. It was the biggest thing that anyone in the history of humanity had been involved in. No one was thinking this in the war’s immediate aftermath. When I was a Cub Scout marching in our little town’s Memorial Day parade in 1965, we didn’t have many WWII veterans in formation with us. Why would they bother? They were everywhere, still young and too busy with their boats and their barbecues and their televised ballgames to dress up and play soldier again.
I remember marching in that parade behind a group of quiet, black-suited men in their 60s and 70s. These were the WWI guys. Ahead of them was a white convertible with a man in it who looked old enough to have fallen out of a bible. We borrowed him from the next town over. He had served in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. I didn’t connect any of these gentlemen to my Dad. I’m sure the WWII vets didn’t connect themselves to these old-timers either.
Things happen when my now 85-year-old father puts on one of his veteran caps. He originally wore them to remind people about the war. Then he found out that he and Mom got better service in restaurants and airports. But wearing the cap has become a mission. In this new century, when the men and women who won WWII are disappearing and we send more men and women to fight in wars that never seem to end, people want to make a connection. They want to talk to someone from that time and place. They want to see the man in the white convertible and know that there’s continuity in our chaotic lives.
And so strangers stop Dad and thank him for his service. Vietnam veterans salute him. Middle-aged women hug him. One woman cried when she saw Dad and his cap and explained that her grandfather had served in WWII and how much she missed him. (Then she looked at Dad and asked, “How old are you?!”)
I called my folks on the Memorial Day weekend. Dad related his latest encounter, this one with one of his fellow WWII vets. When they see that hat they stop to talk, though they’re unfailingly modest about what they accomplished. This gentleman (I’ll call him Ike) was almost 90. He’d gone ashore at Salerno in 1943 and spent a year fighting his way up the mountainous spine of Italy. When Ike’s wife showed up, the couple left, but as they did she asked him, “Do you know that man?”
“No,” Ike told her. “But he’s my brother.”
My father has a new goal: He wants to be the WWII equivalent of Frank Buckles, the last U.S. veteran of WWI. Buckles lived to be 110, so if Dad pulls this off I’ll be back with an update around 2037. “Thank you for your service,” I tell him, “as my father.” I don’t care that you don’t have any medals. I’m just glad you voted to reelect Lincoln in 1864.