We walked around the small town of Bandon waiting for the stores to open on a rainy, breezy Veterans Day. We wanted to taste local cranberries, so we piled into the Cranberry Sweets store just after someone unlocked the door at ten a.m.
After listening to the historical spiel, we walked around the store tasting candies to our hearts’ content.
“Happy Veterans Day,” the overly coffee’d retail worker sang. “Any veterans in the group?”
My daughter, who was caught in her tractor beam while she waited for popcorn samples to be put out, looked at her mother and then me, and shook her head no.
For some reason, I felt compelled to speak up. “No, no veterans in our family.”
My wife looked back at me. “My dad was a veteran.”
My daughter chimed in, “Oh, yeah, papa was a veteran.”
And he was.
But sometimes that doesn’t register with me in the same way it did for the Lt. Dan Taylor character in “Forest Gump.”
I don’t come from a military family in the same way that many Americans do.
My paternal grandfather fought for whomever conscripted him. It may have been Russia or a Turkic army in Central Asia. He fought to stay alive.
My maternal grandfather was a farmer who was forced to stay home to work the cows at his family’s dairy farm to support the troops.
My father missed Vietnam, and I missed the Iraq war. But not by much.
The military hasn’t been a big part of who I am as an extension of my families.
But then I met the woman who would eventually be my wife. And her father, who would become my father-in-law, had served in the military during the Vietnam War.
His war story isn’t mine to tell. But he often told me that the one thing he regretted from his service was his smoking habit.
He smoked a couple of packs a day, a habit he picked up because the ranking officers gave the grunts a choice. If you don’t smoke, you can pick up the butts off the ground.
It was an easy choice then, but it led, ultimately, to his untimely death at the young age of sixty-eight due to complications from emphysema.
This was the part of his service that he talked about mostly to me as we’d chat in his shop before or after family dinners, as he’d stub out another cigarette with not a little regret in his smoke-filled voice.
I played a war games as a child and later as a recruit for the Oregon National Guard during my junior year of high school.
As a child, my friends and I had BB gun fights in the back yard, trampling through the brush wearing as many layers of clothes as we comfortably could during those long summers.
I don’t know where the need to play at war came from. Maybe it was the Cowboy and Indian movies we watched with our parents and grandparents. Or the Vietnam war movies that littered the Hollywood landscape in the late 70s and early 80s.
We would create a weapon out of any material available to us from my youngest memories. Sticks became fighting staffs or spears or swords.
We created Lego spaceships and machine guns.
My father, a traveling missionary, didn’t really own any guns. And I was already a teenager when I can remember first firing a gun at a friend’s house in Montana during a summer visit.
My dad lost his best friend in Vietnam, and for a man who could tell stories better than anyone I know, he never talked about his friend Al in more than short phrases.
The war that most of my friends’ grandfathers had fought in was a movie set for most of us, the stark realities locked up within their rapidly fading memories.
Relatively untouched by Vietnam and Korea, we played at some notion of Arctic warfare spurred on by movies playing on a very different type of war. The Cold War.
Russians would invade from Mexico or through Alaska. And we, of course, would stop them.
There was a purpose to the violence we played at.
In high school, my brother and I picked up on hunting, something that had been passed down from our friends’ fathers to their sons.
My brother hunted deer with a rifle, and I hunted ducks and upland game birds with a shotgun.
Communism fell in the late eighties, and the nineties ushered in a strange new war that wasn’t patriotically defending America from the worldwide spread of Communism for once.
And I wanted to be a chaplain in the Oregon National Guard.
I went along on some of the training weekends with my friends who were signed up. But I was too young to enlist.
My parents didn’t understand the desire to join the military, and I didn’t really either. By the time I turned eighteen and could sign up, the initial invasion of Iraq had occurred, and my military friends would spend the next four or five years traveling the world working in one embassy or another.
Looking back, I was nursing an overly active sense of adventure, and the military, along with the merchant marines or the Coast Guard all seemed like potential avenues.
I think most boys play at war. I know some girls who play at war too. Our military is almost nothing like it was when I had a chance to serve.
And every Veterans Day, I’m challenged by my assumptions about service and sacrifice and what being patriotic really means.
We played at war to wrestle through those concepts as children, but the answers were much easier then, unconvoluted, as they were, by the amount of trivial detail we carry with us as adults.
As a child, I had a strong sense of passion for right and wrong and for defending American values.
Today I’m torn, not by the honor due our veterans on Veterans Day or any other day of the year. I don’t know how you can be American and not stand in awe of the blood shed for the freedoms we currently own.
I’m torn by the vagaries of patriotism. By the number of Confederate battle flags flying in the backs of pickup trucks where I live far from the South and the notion that kneeling during the national anthem is somehow disrespecting veterans. And the rhetoric delivered in 140 and now 280 characters from a buffoon head of state and the potential for a declaration of war with a country whose citizenry is starving, probably brainwashed and highly likely to die in numbers not seen since the earlier part of the last century.
A century so bloody that the human race became cognizant of its ability to kill at scale to such a degree that the weapons designed to annihilate humanity were tucked quietly away and only whispered about from time to time.
And for my two boys, nineteen and seventeen, beginning college and ending high school, right in that gap that makes them perfect for such a time as this. Wherein our military might just need to pick up a few hundred thousand soldiers.
I think about them every day as I read the news. I think about them on Veterans Day, when we honor those who have served. I think about them on Memorial Day, when we honor those who have died.
And forgive me if this doesn’t sit well with you. My patriotism sees boundaries. My patriotism sees limitations. I can’t see the Confederate flag flying without feeling angry at the notion of the Civil War re-written as a patriotic ode to a unique Southern spirit rather than the fight for our entire species and the death of slavery.
My patriotism won’t allow me to watch a money-driven sports industry that misconstrue a message seeking to remind us that even for the results of the Civil War, not everything has changed here in America, and some voices are deemed less valuable than others. Some rights are deemed applicable to some and not to others.
My patriotism won’t allow me to blindly worship a symbol or a day just because it exists with preconceived ideals. It has to mean more than it has come to mean for so many.
The clerk in the candy store in Bandon smiled at my daughter as she told her that her papa was a veteran.
“Oh, papa’s a veteran, huh? well, if he was here, we could give him a discount on some candy.”