We know our fathers for all of our lives ... but not for all of theirs. While Grams told me what Dad was like as a boy - mischievous, adventuresome and a risk-taker - and Mom described him as a young man - caring, fun-loving and an avid sportsman - neither knew much about his service as an Army Ranger officer in World War II. They didn't know because, like many combat veterans, Dad didn't tell. Perhaps he wanted to forget or simply realized that those who hadn't experienced combat couldn't understand.
I am blessed that Mom kept Dad's wartime letters. In a letter to his parents from Anzio Beachhead in April 1944, he depicted the role of a combat soldier: "War cannot be described; only those who have experienced combat can have any conception of the term . ... To the combat soldier who lives in holes like animals, whose existence is characterized only by the barest minimum of the necessities of life, and who has for almost a year and a half suffered day after day from heat or cold, in desert or in icy, muddy mountains, going without sleep, or bathing, or changing clothes for days, weeks and months, life has been crystalized into the expression of one desire - to return home!"
In October 1943, Dad wrote Mom that he met two of his Kansas University Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers, both serving with the 1st Division in Oran, where they had a big party before the invasion of Sicily. Sadly, the letter contained a postscript about his friends, who died in Sicily and whose names are inscribed on the tablets in KU's World War II Memorial Campanile: "They thought I was in a suicide organization. Now they are dead and I am still alive."
My quest to learn about Dad's military experiences began because my mother, his widow for three decades, wanted to know about those missing years. When she died in 2004, my mission changed. I now seek information for my sisters, for my children and theirs. And to learn about the father I didn't know.
Ray and I recently attended a mini-reunion of WWII Rangers at a beautiful resort on Iowa's Lake Okoboji. There I met 84-year-old Sgt. Les Cook - winner of Silver Stars in World War II and Korea and wearer of a Green Beret in Vietnam - who rides his bicycle 40 miles daily. Cook, with 1,004 parachute jumps to his credit, is an original Ranger who was trained in Scotland by British Commandos. He admits he was unimpressed when his captain called him in and introduced my father, who had joined the Rangers in Africa, as his new lieutenant.
The Rangers were fairly strict in accepting only single men, so the jury is still out on whether Dad concealed that he had a wife and three children. Personally, I think that Dad's fluency in German and knowledge of Italian and French may have made him a valuable acquisition in spite of his family baggage.
Les Cook was surprised by something about Dad that didn't surprise me at all. He said the captain told Dad to listen to his sergeant, who had participated in the invasion of Africa and was battle-hardened. "When you think you're able to take over the platoon, tell Sgt. Cook and he will give it to you."
"That's exactly what happened," Cook says. "It worked out OK." But he is still surprised that Dad, who at 26 was an old man for a Ranger, listened to and learned from his 19-year-old subordinate. I told Sgt. Cook that I grew up with this advice from Dad: "There isn't anyone, Marsha, who doesn't know something that you don't ... and if you close your mind to that, you will never learn what they have to teach you." Dad obviously was following that advice long before he gave it to me.
Loving and considerate, Dad went shopping and bought a white organdy dress with a pink sash for me to wear to my sixth-grade graduation ceremony. And he had my white satin ballerina slippers dyed red to match the ruffled tulle formal Mom made for my ninth-grade dance. Compassionate and brave, he jumped into a lake to rescue a dog, apparently the world's only nonswimming cocker spaniel, that I had adopted and named RayGee after the boy who would later become my husband. A risk-taker to the end, Dad went to Abilene shortly before his death and talked someone into letting him ride a Brahma bull because it was something he "always wanted to do."
Perhaps the father I didn't know was the father I knew all along.
Happy Father's Day to all fathers ... and especially to Ray, who changed his sons' diapers long before it became cool for fathers to do that!