Friday, November 11, 2011
Veteran's Day 2011
It is still November and so it is still NaNoWriMo. I am typing on an external keyboard attached to my laptop which is perched on a board held up by two drawers so I have room for my hands - otherwise I'd bash my knuckles or have to hold the external keyboard in my lap. My Lenovo is only two years old and I've dropped it three times so a few of the keys won't work, like the quotation mark/apostrophe. Vital keys for novel writing, I tell you.
While I am struggling to write tales of fantasy heroes, I thought I'd take a moment out and talk about the man I consider to be my hero, My father. William Henry Jennings 3rd was born on July 4, 1922. He was a trouble maker from the start. Demanding, handsome, taking all his mother's attention. By the age of 12 he was something of a bully and a vagabond, wandering the farms of South Jersey with an eye toward earning money so he could hang out with his gang of friends, buy beer - if the tales are true - and be a nuisance. He was a lover of books, as I am, but not until he was older and much calmer.
He met my mother, Dorothy Jean Runge (she preferred "Jean" to "Dorothy" or Dot and always relegated the Dorothy to a "D. Jean" when writing checks) during their high school years. He attended Woodrow Wilson and she West Collingswood. He played on the baseball team and she was in the Drum and Bugle Corps. When they first met, at a ball game, he told her, "I'm going to marry you." She was a year older than he was and thought he was tall, too young, much too arrogant and annoying, but ... oh, so handsome. Blond, blue-eyed, it wasn't long before he won her heart and took her home to meet his mother. One look at Mom and Grandmom called her "an angel" because of her pretty face and beautiful blond hair.
The story goes that when the U.S. joined WWII in '41, Dad joined up but to get married to my mother he needed his mother's signature on the license. See how young he looks in that picture! Smug, too.
He did his stint, proud to serve in the Navy while his brother, my uncle Bob, served in the Army. Years later, Dad told me stories of being chosen to sit behind the pilot and take reconnaissance photographs. Before the flight, he cut JEAN out of paper, wet the letters and stuck them on the plane for a photograph. He carried that picture in his wallet for years, even after Mom died. During the flight, the plane was hit and he and the pilot bailed out. The pilot was shot as they descended and got caught by his chute in a tree. Dad managed to climb up and cut him down, but he was already dead.
Many, many times, my father could have been killed in those years. But he wasn't. He told me how he became the reluctant Light Weight Boxing Champion of his ship. The other guys didn't give him a choice. They had money riding on the fight and the guy who was supposed to fight was out of commission so he'd better win. Dad stepped up and won the fight. I think it was the only fight he fought, and it wasn't easy, but - he told me - it was better than being beaten up by his crew mates. God was good to my father and had plans for him. Unlike many other servicemen, he got to come home and to come home whole. He had seven kids with Mom, saw all of them grow up, most get married. He even got to see me, the youngest, get married and have three beautiful children. Though, when my grandmother, alive to see my oldest born, said that he was a "beautiful boy," Dad said to my son, "You tell her, Marc! You're not beautiful! Girls are beautiful, boys are handsome. You tell her that you're handsome!" I have that on video.
He had a strong work ethic. You went to work unless you were dying or someone else was. You did your job, you were loyal to your employer and in turn your employer did right by you. He served our hometown as police officer, Police Chief, fireman and Fire Chief for many years. I still remember when I was in kindergarten and he brought the big, red Fire Engine to our school to talk about fire safety. All the kids in my class were absolutely stunned and incredibly impressed. "He's your father??" I thought I'd burst with pride.
I'm still bursting with it. He never, ever let us go hungry no matter how hard or long he had to work. Seven kids, a wife, a house - part of which he built with his own two hands, all of which he maintained year after year without complaint. We never lacked for clothes to wear (even if they were hand-me-downs) and the house was never so cold that a sweater couldn't take the winter chill away. He taught Sunday School in our church. He became shop steward when he worked in a manufacturing plant after he left the Fire Department. He was respected, listened to, looked up to and never once did he expect to be given anything but a fair day's pay for an honest day's work. He knew how to save, how to be disciplined and how to mete out punishment appropriate to misbehaving children with a fair and loving hand. We were never punished by a smack on the behind if talking solved the problem. If we couldn't be reasoned with, we were put over his knee but he never, ever beat us. A firm swat on the behind and it was over. We were quite clear about what we had done wrong and even more clear that having to punish any of us hurt our father's heart far more than it hurt our healthy backsides.
I loved him so much, was so proud of the kind of man he was, that the mere thought of disappointing him, let alone doing something worthy of a swat to the bum, rarely entered my mind. To see that broken-hearted look on his face even once was enough to make me never want to hurt him again. He showed me what knowing God was all about because he exemplified Christ-like behavior in how he dealt with me. I was loved and cherished and he never failed to let me know it.
The only time he ever let me down was when my mother became ill in 1984. He tried to pull away from her, because he was terrified that she wasn't going to make it. She wanted him to sit and talk with her, to be with her and he couldn't let her see him cry so he left the house as if he were angry. I went outside after him and found him crying. It was so frightening to see my strong, tall, wonderful father cry. "I can't watch her die," he told me. "I love her so much!" I asked him why he didn't just tell her so and held him as he sobbed. "She needs to hear it, Dad. She needs you." He felt guilty that he couldn't be the man she wanted him to be, that he had failed her by leaning too much on a woman at work. Even then, it wasn't me he'd let down, it was Mom. Even in his mistakes, I learned from him. He showed me that I had to look to God for perfection and that forgiveness was only a word away from any of us, at any time.
He was so very lost the night Mom died. The family had all gathered together, our pastor was there, talking about how very loved Mom had been. But after a while, Dad couldn't take the mourning of his children and their spouses, the clutter of people in the kitchen he had built for her and he cried, "This is an empty house!" I've never heard such anguish or seen such love demonstrated in loss. I will never forget the look on his face. Though he remarried seven years after she passed away, he never loved anyone the way he'd loved my mother.
Dad passed away the last day of July, 1996 from a small cell prostate cancer that was discovered in February of that year. It moved so fast and it frustrated him so that he was sick because of something he couldn't see. "Kris," he told me near the end, "all my life I've been able to fight my own battles." As I listened, and I fought back tears, I thought of his battles over the years. The battle to win my mother's heart, the war, the battle against crime and even against the devastation of consuming fire. He'd fought politics and corporate management for fair treatment for workers. "But," Dad went on, "I can't fight an opponent I can't see. I don't know how."
Cancer didn't fight fair.
Though he's been gone fifteen years now, I still think about what he would do when things go wrong, when friends need help, when people need to be loved. "Time to act," he'd say. I am still humbled by the pride he had in my ability to write and I am grateful for all that he taught me.
Thanks for your service to our country, Dad. I miss you, but I know I'll see you again.
Hey, thanks for reading. I have to get back to making my word quota, so I'll just point to some marvelous other blogs you can read to get tips on excellent writing: Look at the list to the right near the top of the page. In that list, you will see Kristen Lamb, Robin Lythgoe and Jody Hedlund, all with lovely ideas to improve the work you're doing on your NaNo or other exciting WIPs. Read, enjoy and remember to thank a Veteran or active duty member of the military today. There is nothing like what they do for us, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, spouses... soldiers.