This is for my dad, and for all the vets out there this Veterans Day.
My dad was naturally Dad to me. But for a couple of years before I was born, he was also PFC Joseph. He was many things — a lawyer with the government, an Adonis in the gym and on Lake Michigan beaches, a killer dancer anywhere the music was good — but there was always part of him that remained an Army guy.
After my dad died, one of my favorite things among his belongings that ended up with me was his green cotton Army jacket with his last name stenciled in black blocky letters on the pocket.
I’ve kept it close because it’s not only a belonging that he actually wore, it’s a belonging that signifies something important to him. He wore it as a young man, fresh out of law school. Drafted around the end of the Korean War, he served at Fort Chaffee, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He never saw combat. He saw Arkansas. And though he hadn’t gone in voluntarily, the Army came to mean honor and duty to him.
When we were very little and living in Maryland, the family made a pilgrimage — and my dad made sure we understood that’s what it was — to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The rows and rows of perfectly aligned white headstones as far as the eye could see imprinted on my second-grade mind. So, too, the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
At home, my dad would play military marches sometimes, always at very loud volume, and we’d sing the Caisson Song. I knew then as a little kid, and still know now, all the old words. “Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail. ... And it’s hi! hi! hee! / In the field artillery / Shout out your numbers loud and strong.” I know if I called my sister right now and sang that much, she’d yell, “One! Two!” And we’d finish it singing together: “You will always know / That those caissons go rolling along.”
And then we’d start crying. Because that song was and is part of our dad.
Every now and then when we were kids, we’d hear a few of his Army stories that were suitable for young ears. We never heard the one about the time one of the guys drank so much beer he said he was going to pee a quart. His buddies didn’t believe him, so, when he finally relieved himself, they measured it. I heard that one from my mom just today.
My dad’s buried close enough to where I live that I can visit his grave whenever I make the time or feel the need. Sometimes I just drop by to sit on the stone bench and talk to him, even though I know he’s not there.
For some reason my family never got him a headstone. The kids got in a fight with my mother about how big it should be. We wanted something as big as the man himself — I think they’re called ledger markers. My mom thought we were being ostentatious and ridiculous and wanted something modest and much cheaper.
To break the impasse, we decided to plant an oak tree when the ground got warm enough. We thought that the mighty oak it would become someday would be a fitting marker. But my mom and I apparently didn’t water the tree enough for it to survive the Texas drought, so the poor thing withered up and died.
Thankfully, the Army came to the rescue. I don’t know when they did it, but one day, a plaque showed up at his gravesite, where instead of resting under “beloved father and husband” chiseled on granite beneath a big oak, my dad lies under daylilies and rosebushes and a copper-colored plaque that identifies him as PFC Joseph.
Whenever I’m at my dad’s grave and see that marker it makes me think fleetingly about his days in the Army. Whenever Veterans Day rolls around in November, I make a special point of visiting his grave and thinking more deliberately about his service.
I had to call my mom, who is now 86 and has been widowed for almost 18 years, about the particulars. He was in the Army from October 1954 to August 1956. It was after the Korean armistice, but he was drafted anyway, having gotten a deferral in his final year of law school so he could finish up and get his J.D. My parents married in July 1953 and started their newlywed life in Chicago. A little more than a year later, my dad was at Fort Chaffee, teaching military law, Army boards, and physical training.
In the Army, he became lifelong friends with two guys especially, Ron and Norb. We always called them his Army buddies. We got to know Ron and his family because they lived about an hour away for many years and our families would visit each other. To me, the Army came to mean not just the courage and defense of the country, but also uncommon friendships.
And it came to mean my dad’s addiction to Coca-Cola.
“He drank 30 small bottles of Coke a day when he was in the Army,” my mom told me. “He would write home to ask for more money because the water was so terrible he was spending all his money drinking Coke instead of water.”
When I was growing up, there were always glass bottles of Coke in the freezer. He’d rinse them off and stick them in there to get them extra cold. Invariably he’d forget one and we’d open the freezer to the sight of pop exploded and frozen all over the place.
The Army was also responsible in part for what a great dancer my dad was. And it’s by extension the reason I learned how to dance as a toddler standing on my dad’s feet, was able to tango dramatically with him across the family room as a teenager, and eventually could slow-dance tearfully with the father of the bride at my two weddings.
When he was in the Army, my dad took lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Fort Smith. So the Army is why I know how to rhumba. And foxtrot. And samba. And waltz. And cha cha. And merengue.
And it’s probably why my son is a muscle-laden personal trainer. Even though by the time he was born my dad was wrecked by disease, my son seems to have inherited his appreciation for physical strength and a well-built frame, something my dad honed in the Army.
“One time he really had the guys going when he was putting them through their training paces,” my mom told me when she called back with another story she’d just remembered. “The commanding officer saw your dad and the guys working out hard and he was so excited about how they were training that he started proudly yelling “Regulars! Regulars!”
I didn’t understand what that meant. My mom explained that the C.O. meant that the soldiers were training with the enthusiasm of “regulars” — guys who’d enlisted voluntarily, as opposed to draftees.
My dad must have really taken that as a compliment because, my mom says, he used to love telling that story.
My mom never visited him on the base or even got to Arkansas when he was in the service. He would go home to Chicago when he got leave. Most times he’d hitchhike from Fort Smith. One time, the guys who were from Chicago got together and chartered a plane home. My mom said when she got a look at the puddle jumper they landed in she was so frightened for their safety, she prayed the whole time they were in the air going back to Arkansas.
The rest of the time, my mom and dad just talked on the phone. “Our phone bills were $30,” my mom said to me with a sort of fondness for my dad that she hasn’t really shown for decades.
“At the time, $30 was astronomical!” At the time, they loved each other a lot.
I could hear in my mom’s voice when she was relating those days that she was somehow just a little bit that newlywed again. Not the beleaguered wife trying to cope with her husband’s deteriorating condition and years and years of watching Parkinson’s ravage what was left of her once-handsome, brilliant, and strong husband. She was thinking about the gorgeous guy in uniform, PFC Joseph, her new husband, whose sepia-tone Army portrait still sits in her family room on top of the TV cabinet.
My dad was in a really bad way and a shadow of his former Army self by the time his Army buddies Ron and Norb drove all the way from up north down to Texas to visit him. We hadn’t seen Ron since we moved from Chicago, and because Norb lived in the Northeast, I’d never even met him.
Something crazy happened when those three guys were together, and I witnessed it: They were in their late 60s or early 70s, but they were clearly young men again, however diminished their strength and battered their bodies might have become in the ensuing decades. To see them together was to see the young guys they’d been in the Army together at Fort Chaffee — and what an unbreakable bond had been formed then.
I actually got to see Fort Chaffee once. Long before my dad got sick, when we were living in Kansas and still taking occasional Sunday drives as a family, he got up one morning and corralled us for what we thought was going to be a short jaunt somewhere. We ended up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was more than four hours away one way.
We got as close to Fort Chaffee as civilians could, and my dad pointed out things he remembered as we drove around. Even as a surly teenager, I was moved by something I could tell was more than nostalgia. It was akin to an important homecoming, and there was a kind of reverential quiet in the car instead of the normal sibling bickering.
I’ll take a much shorter drive this Sunday, November 11, Veterans Day, to the cemetery where my dad’s buried. I’ll probably take some pansies to plant at his grave. I’ll put them next to the two cement reclining lions his children chose as a symbol for either side of the plaque. I’ll sweep the fallen autumn leaves off his Army PFC Joseph marker and say, “Hi, Dad. I love you. I miss you so much.”
Magically, the Army or some military organization will have been to his grave and to the graves of all the other veterans. They will have placed American flags for every deceased member of the military family. The cemetery will be covered with the Stars and Stripes.
As I do every time I go see my dad on Veterans Day, I’ll thank God for the great father I had — and for all the other vets and active-duty soldiers who have shouldered their duty with honor.
Photography: Courtesy Dana Joseph