Monday, May 25, 2009
Click on the mural photo to see a larger image, my father is circled in white.
My dad served in WWII and Korea with the USN. He enlisted at 17 in Cumberland County, North Carolina, I suspect because his oldest brother was an officer well onto his own way as a skipper on a diesel submarine. Dad was sent to the Pacific Theater on the U.S.S. Vincennes, which was torpedo'd and sunk by a Japanese sub. Dad couldn't swim and in the few times he told the tale, he claimed he ran on the water to a life raft. His youngest brother recently shared with me that though my dad survived, that disaster changed his "happy-go-lucky" personality for the remainder of his life. Ironically, dad's oldest brother's sub was within miles of the sinking Vincennes, and knew his sibling was on-board, but communications blockades, and the unimaginably long time it then took to route information prevented my uncle from knowing my dad's fate. Once he did know dad survived, re-united with him and (according to my other uncle) assessed my dad's dire mental and emotional state, took him under wing and down to Melbourne, Australia. My older uncle also got dad to accept re-assignment to submarines and put him under the tutelage and mentorship of another boy from the South, one Chief Bill Smith from Arkansas. They served the remainder of WWII and later Korea on the Flying Fish. Between wars and in dock in the SF/Oakland naval drydocks, somehow Bill Smith met and married my maternal aunt Andee. And in the process, here in Visalia those two introduced my dad to my mom. They married in 1949. I came along in '51 while dad was offshore near abouts the Korean peninsula. We (my mom and I) lived in those "half tin can" quonset huts on the outskirts of Visalia even though her father, my "Zampa," was a local Standard Oil executive.
A few years ago, Wendy and I having lived and raised the kids through college in Visalia, met a local artist and commissioned a number of original paintings that now grace our house. Glen Hill had, at the time, a very vibrant studio downtown. He was asked by a number of local veteran's groups to paint a mural representing the concept Tom Brokaw coined as "The Greatest Generation." After much civic wrangling, a locality was secured and Glen started acquiring subjects to fill out his concept. He asked me casually one day if I had any WWII era photos of family members. I mentioned that I did have a number of my dad. He asked permission to borrow copies. From that point, Glen and I lost track of each other.
Wendy and I were out driving aimlessly on a lark this morning. After a brief shopping stop, she said why don't we go out and look at the mural that Glen had, indeed completed a couple of years ago. We drove past the park between Visalia and Tulare, parked the car and took in the work. In the top row, center was a skinny sailor with his white cap jauntily pushed back so that his high forehead was in full glory. I said to Wendy, "That's him." Took the picture above, which I can't, at this point, expand for more clarity. But we got home, opened the photo album, and my dad's in Glen's mural after all!
My dad led a difficult life, even before having a ship sink underneath him and watching mates get dragged off by sharks etc., like the Indianapolis later on. Fortunately, his youngest brother has been able to fill in many blanks about my dad (who took his life in 1967) that proved he was the man I remember who wanted to make "it" on his own, despite numerous demons, imagined and chemical that dogged and stalked him his whole life.
So, Dad, I remember you as offering yourself among the men and women of "The Greatest Generation" on this Memorial Day. And the mural bearing your image alongside so many images of those defining years in our country's heritage will last in this, my hometown, long after I'm onto my own reward. Thank you, Dad.