In Dad's stories,
he wasn't a hero

Memory kept soldiers alive

Monday, May 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Every war story my dad ever told always put a lump in his throat. He didn't tell many stories. He came from the World War II generation of soldiers who went to war, came home and didn't care to talk much about it.

Clifford J.

For him, the war was over. There was no sense reliving it. He had a life to live.

Not that he could or would ever forget the horrors he saw while serving in the Army in Europe. But one thing the war taught him was to concentrate on today and hope that you'll be lucky enough to see tomorrow.

Still there would be times when he would start to talk about the war. Often, it was on Memorial Day.

We would start the day by walking up the street to see the parade Cheviot puts on for Memorial Day. It's the little town's way of honoring those who died to keep us free.

The sight of the flag held by the color guard would choke up my dad. He wouldn't have much to say for the rest of the parade.

Later in the day, at the kitchen table, some casual remark about the parade would trigger a story. And the telling always followed this sequence:

My dad would begin to talk. Then he would get a lump in his throat. He'd act like some food had gone down the wrong pipe. He'd cough, clear his throat and start to talk again. His voice would waver. He'd struggle to continue, sucking in some air through his teeth. Finally, he'd go on, his nerves and his voice barely under control. Now that he's gone, I can tell this story without embarrassing him. Now, it's my turn to get choked up.

In my dad's stories, he was never the hero. He'd just talk about what he saw.

As a little kid I never understood why my dad was so upset. War, I foolishly thought, was neat. The comic books, the movies and TV shows like Combat said so. The good guys won World War II and came home to live happily ever after.

My dad's stories did not glorify war or linger on the horror. He just tried to tell my sister and me -- who he hoped would never have to go off to war -- how it felt to be in one.

For his sake as well as ours he also wanted to make sense of serving in the Army with millions of other guys, fighting halfway around the world and spending nearly four years of his life away from his bride of less than seven months.

Over the years, his story came out in bits and pieces. He repeated the funny ones. One morning in Paris, after making his way back from behind enemy lines, he reported to breakfast in grubby fatigues and carrying his tin mess kit. The other diners were in dress uniforms, chowing down at tables topped with white linen and fine china.

Some stories he never shared with his kids. He told my mom about passing a convoy of big trucks on their way back from a battleground. They carried bodies, he said, stacked "like cord wood."

And, it was my mom who told me about the day he came home from the war.

When his train pulled into Union Terminal, he jumped off and ran up the boarding ramp, duffle bag flung over his back. She ran down to meet him.

They held onto each other and said nothing.

"We couldn't talk," she tells me. "We were too choked up." Finally, he pulled back and looked at her. Hoisting his duffle bag one last time, he slipped his arm around her waist and whispered: "Let's go home."

On this Memorial Day, four years after hearing my dad's last story, I know why he choked up talking about the war.

He was telling stories for the soldiers who never made it home. It was his way of honoring the GIs who gave their lives so we could enjoy the pursuit of happiness.

And so, this Memorial Day, with a lump in my throat, I do so for him.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.