Friday, November 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Veterans

Many is the time when my wife and I have gotten to talking about our fathers and how interesting it would have been for the two of them to have met. One was Hispanic from Kansas and the other was a farm boy from the hills of Kentucky. Both of them were veterans. More importantly, each of them spent more than 30 years in a military career.

Carolyn’s father, Onofre “Hank” Hernandez, retired as a Master Gunny in the Marine Corps. My father, John R. Blevins, Sr., retired as a Senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force. Both of them started their service in World War II. Carolyn’s father enlisted in the Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor. My father was drafted when he turned 18 in 1943. Carolyn’s dad saw multiple campaigns in the Pacific theater while my father hit the beaches at Normandy on D-Day and spent the next year and a half on the ground in Europe.

Carolyn’s father was about 12 years older than my father. He was a dirt poor underground coal miner in Kansas. In many ways his patriotic act of enlistment was his ticket out of the poverty and prejudice a Mexican man lived with in the 1930s and 40s. My father was self-described “white trash” whose family cash-rented cropland in Kentucky to raise tobacco. He was the second oldest of 11 children.

There wasn’t going to be much of a life for either of them in the environments in which they grew up. The military changed all that. It was a profession of honor and service and, yes, of risk. Carolyn’s father served in combat in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. My father was only in combat in the Army in WWII. He served throughout the Korean War and Viet Nam. My father earned a Purple Heart in WWII while Carolyn’s father was fortunate to have been in combat far more often but went unscathed.

So, this is Veteran’s Day a day when we remember and honor veterans. The military has long been a profession where men, and increasingly women, from very humble backgrounds can thrive in service to their country.

Here’s what Carolyn had to say about her father: “My dad loved this country. Maybe he didn't agree with the way it was going or its politics, but I have literally never met more of an 'American' than my dad. He believed in this country and the concepts and idelas upon which it was founded, even though - being a poor Mexican and all - they were definitely not written nor intended for the likes of him. Or maybe, in their noblest form, they actually were.”

My Dad never talked of his experiences of combat in World War II other than to say that he had never been so cold or hungry or scared in his life. That was it. It was personal and private, locked in the recesses of memory. Like many veterans he knew that combat was nothing to be bragged about like a fourth grader during “show and tell”. That’s probably something else that he and Gunny Hernandez would have understood about one another.

Carolyn and I joke from time to time about the “military-isms” we grew up with. Lessons like “clean up after yourself—leave the latrine clean for the next guy” were mantras we both heard from the time we were youngsters. In my household, shoeshines were obligatory. But, Sunday mornings sitting in the old high chair while my Dad shined my shoes for church were also times for the old man to have some one-on-one time with his son. Just like when we were throwing the baseball or fishing, they were times when the remoteness of a military father softened to just a couple of guys.

By the time I was a bit older, I was spit shining my own shoes. I remember high school classmates who thought the wing-tips I wore with my choir blazer and slacks were patent leather. Nope, they were just spit-shined in a “thoroughly military manner”.

And in a lot of ways, our respective fathers could be unreasonable hardasses. But that was just the way they were hardwired from their background and by the military.

We always talk about how they would have found that they had far more in common with one another than one would ever assume and we think their conversation would have been fascinating. Both had a background of poverty. Neither was well educated (until later in their careers) but both were articulate. And both grasped the opportunity of service and honor and discipline as a path to a career.

These men took pride in their military professionalism. They had risen much further than they ever imagined from their humble backgrounds. Both of our fathers took pride in the fact that they were in “the service”. That term has stuck with us our entire lives. They served. There is no more noble calling.

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