The recent passing of my father caused me to reflect on my life with my parents. My father devoted his life to the Navy, and unwittingly, so did my mother. In honor of Memorial Day and my father’s service, here’s a piece I wrote for his funeral. Please read through to the end.
In many ways my life began and ended in Monterey, book-ended by the lives of my parents. As a child, I walked the sugar-white beaches of Carmel holding my mother’s hand. On those crystalline sands, I learned to share my mother’s hopes and sweet dreams. We lived in Camelot and sang Puff the Magic Dragon. In the late 1950s, my mother Millie was a young housewife and had high aspirations for herself and her young family. She met my father, Gene, during the Korean war before his six-month deployment on the USS Princeton. After flying 50 combat missions he returned, they were married, and had two boys, my older brother Craig and me. In Carmel, they were enjoying the peacetime while my father completed his MS degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School. The times were changing and my mother had thoughts of a career after raising us boys and a life outside of the grueling Navy lifestyle my father loved. Like the white sands under our feet, the future was bright.
But the Vietnam War pulled us away from those bright beaches and my mother’s dreams as my father began his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Navy. As an aviator his duties grew to include squadron XO, then CO, then CAG (Commander Air Group). As the air war escalated in the mid-1960s he flew over 259 combat missions in Vietnam before moving into aviation command.
As a young boy, I knew little of those missions but was acutely aware that my father was gone for most of my childhood. To stay connected we exchanged audio tape “letters” and played chess in an attempt to bridge the vast gulf between us. There were exciting moments, like when he flew in on his plane and we ran out to meet him; and high points, like when he became the Captain of the USS Enterprise. But during the rare times he was home and we were together he carried an officer’s edge and his exacting standards cut deep into my fragile soul. For most of my life, he was more figure than father; he was hard, distant, and tough. At times I felt like Ben in the The Great Santini, who experienced stern military discipline from his father with no room for his sensitive nature.
Meanwhile, my mother dragged us around from one home to another; 11 places in 21 years. After Carmel it was Norfolk, Lemoore, San Diego, McLean, Idaho Falls, San Diego, Alameda, Alexandria, San Diego, Subic Bay, Pearl Harbor. I remember great times and devastating moments as our nomadic Naval life took a long-term toll on my mother. Although she rejoiced in my father’s stellar accomplishments, and her son’s burgeoning lives, she paid a heavy price for holding down the fort and trying to make each new house special. And she was amazing. But my mother suffered the most from the emotional stress of his absence while he served our country.
On top of that, as my father’s responsibilities grew, so did my mother’s, and she faced the reality of watching for the Navy car with the chaplain in the back. We lost many friends in those days and it was her job to console those who lost their husbands while carrying her own fears about my father. For decades she carried the banner for MIAs and POWs; the ultimate horror for military families. Navy families are tight and supportive, connected by a crisscrossing of moves and overlapping lives. But those were long difficult years.
During those turbulent times we often returned to Carmel, searching for those sugar sands. But the beach had changed, much like my mother’s troubled life. I recall walking down one winter’s storm-ravaged beach with kelp piled high on the shore, forcing us to traverse unearthed cobbles. The cold, raw beach hurt our feet and chilled us to the bone, but my mother put her head into the wind and forged ahead, dragging my small body through the squall. Another time, between deployments, we walked the beach in the summer with my father, a rare experience. The sands were bright again, like the abundance of a beach full of new, pristine sand, and our future looked promising. But as time marched on and my mother rode the seasons of our family’s Naval life in the 1960s and 1970s, she lost her own dreams and placed all her hopes and ambitions in her husband and two sons.
Fifty years after those first Carmel days, following my father’s retirement as a Rear Admiral with three major command posts and a distinguished appointment to the Golden Eagles, my parents returned to Monterey to live in the hills of Corral De Tierra; a stunningly beautiful area that John Steinbeck called the Pastures of Heaven. Their well-earned home was surrounded by bright yellow-green meadows and groves of majestic oaks that touched their windows. At Corral De Tierra, they enjoyed their golden years with friends and family and watched my brother and I raise our five kids. In that house, and on the beaches of Carmel and Monterey Bay, my mother made peace with the unexpected arc of her life. As she watched her grandchildren grow she delighted in the stable homes of her son’s families; the one she always wanted but never had. During her last years, I realized she had sacrificed her dreams so we could live our lives as we wanted. My mother’s hopes had passed to me. She was truly the wind beneath our wings.
But, after she passed away I realized I really didn’t know my father, at least not in a personal sense. For most of my life, he was gone or absent and had become a stoic figure in my mind, like the lone stout oak on the top of a hill: rough, rigid, and surrounded by thorny leaves. He was impenetrable and unapproachable. He’d didn’t talk about the war unless asked, his phone calls set records for brevity, and it was difficult to find common ground for a discussion. Sports were neutral ground but the trials of our naval life were off limits. He was from another generation, old school, and he still maintained order and a military crispness to everything in his life.
But…he was always devoted to his family. He rarely forgot a birthday, he attended the graduation of every grandchild, and he cherished his family’s accomplishments with an ever expanding array of photos on his office walls. When I needed a kidney he stepped up without hesitation and gifted me a part of himself which I hold to this day. He was a strong presence in my life but remained distant.
In the years following my mother’s death, as we began to soften towards each other, I developed a new relationship with my father. Slowly, he opened up and I began to see the man inside. The metaphor of a stout oak — rough and tough on the outside — still rang true, but I had missed the inside. He appeared rough because he was strong and proud of who he was and what he had accomplished. He had held on to the discipline that had ensured his success. I realized that he was the one who had spent years running missions while pilots under his command died or were taken captive. He was the one who had spent years at sea defending his country while missing his family. He had watched as his beautiful wife suffered through each new deployment. But he had held it all in — for us — because that’s what he was taught to do. For he was from the Greatest Generation and he was taught to support his family, the Navy, and his country — without complaint. And that’s what he did and that’s who he was.
I realized he had been there for me all along; his shining career a beacon to follow. Just by example, he pushed all of us to achieve great things. He cherished every accomplishment and loved all of us. Far from absent, he was a strong presence throughout my life, but one I didn’t see.
He was like a dark oak on the hillside in dawn’s fog-shrouded moments with nourishing water falling off its thorny leaves. He was the oak that stood strong with sturdy pillars through fierce winter storms. Standing alone he helped bring forth the spring into our lives like the bright yellow poppies and blue lupines erupting in a celebration of life under an oak’s long limbs. I finally saw that inside that stout oak was a heart of gold. Inside I saw a man standing proud, tall, and strong for his family and his country.
And this week, after his funeral, as I walked the white beaches with my children and slept in my parent’s house among the oaks, I realized that I now hold the hopes for my children’s future. They live their own dreams because my parents dedicated their lives to giving us our freedom. My parents absorbed the brunt of our turbulent life, and the constant shifting of our homes, while living with the reality that every military family faces: that one day my father might not come home. Thanks to them, and their service in the Navy, my life is my own and I live in a free country. Like the sugar beaches of Carmel and the stout oaks of Monterey, their dreams are forever a part of the landscape of my life.