My father passed away last month at the age of 98. He was quite a guy, and I miss him. He lived in Amityville, and after he died I began cleaning out the house.
There was a box in the attic that I’d seen there for years but never investigated. On the outside of the box was written “Letters 1943-1944.” They were letters my father had written to my late mother during that time. She was teaching in Poughkeepsie, and he was in the Marine Corps stationed on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands during some of the worst fighting in the Pacific theater.
The letters were as detailed as they could be given the military’s understandable restrictions. My father wrote about the fellow marines in his outfit, about the mundane stuff, with glancing reference to men lost. Mostly he wrote about missing my mother, including some pretty spicy intimate stuff. He was 31, she 28. He never talked to me much about the war — the lighter things, mostly, like getting fresh food by aiming a 50-caliber machine gun at giant schools of fish in the lagoon.
But then there were the terrifying bombing raids when he hid in deep chevron ditches. He made light of them, too. He tried but failed to make light of the piles of dead enemy soldiers — photos that my young curiosity led me to discover in his sea chest.
I knew he had been shot. When I was a kid, he let me feel the lumps where pieces of a bullet remained in his shoulder. I came upon the letter in which he broke the news to my mother. He explained how it happened, a case of friendly fire.
He was a lieutenant sitting in the passenger seat of a truck. In the back of the truck was a machine gun. One of the marines had failed to secure the gun for travel. As the truck started to roll, my father leaned out his window to see what was behind the truck. As the truck jolted forward, the gun fired a single round that went through the truck’s back window and out the windshield, shattering it in the process.
My father wrote that when he sat back up, the bullet hole in the windshield was directly in front of his head. This is not the kind of thing to make light of, of course, but he did. It was his way.
As I placed the letter back in its envelope with the May 1944 postage stamp, I did the math. I was born in February of 1947. If my dad had not been looking behind the truck, the letter would not have been written, and I would not have been alive to read it 67 years later.
Life is precious and not a given. My appreciation of this fact I owe to my father, a man who saw some of the worst that mankind has to offer but always insisted on aiming toward the best. For him, the best was a disappearing target. He liked individuals, but much of his biting wit grew from his abiding and ever-growing distrust of the human race. He preferred just about every other species on the planet.
I haven’t read all the letters written between 1943 and 1944. They are hard to read, not because they make me sad, but because they are a window opened to a familiar world I never knew, one I might never have known.
Russell Drumm is a senior writer at The Star.