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 live in my mother’s hopes and share her 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 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 I. 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 tapes and even 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 in the rare times he was home and we spent time 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; to me he was hard, distant, and tough. At times I felt like the son in the movie The Great Santini: I experienced stern military discipline with no room for my sensitive nature.
Meanwhile, my mother dragged us around as our home base shifted through 11 places in 21 years after Carmel: Norfolk, Lemoore, San Diego, McLean, Idaho Falls, San Diego, Alameda, Alexandria, San Diego, Subic Bay, Pearl Harbor. I remember high moments and devastating moments as our nomadic Naval life took a slow-motion 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 largely paid the emotional price of his absence from our lives 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 wondering where the Navy car driving down the street with the chaplain in the back would stop. 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. Connected by a crisscrossing of moves and overlapping lives, Navy families were tight and supportive, but those were long difficult years.
During those turbulent times, we visited Carmel and once again tread the beaches. But the sands had shifted, much like my mother’s troubled life. One time during the winter I recall a storm-ravaged beach with kelp piled high on the shore, which forced us to traverse unearthed cobbles. The cold, cloudy, 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 beach was bright once more, as the promise of a new summer beach full of pristine sand, and our future was promising. But as my mother rode the seasons of our family’s Naval life in the 1960s and 1970s, she had lost her own dreams and instead had placed all her hopes and ambitions in her husband and two sons.
Fifty years after those first Carmel days, after my father retired as a Rear Admiral and a distinguished member of 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 built on bright yellow-green meadows surrounded by majestic oaks that reached out to touch the 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, I believe my mother finally 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 that despite all the turmoil in her life, she had sacrificed everything to support her family. And now, my mother’s dreams had passed to us. She was truly the wind beneath our wings.
After she passed away I realized I still didn’t know my father. At least not in a personal sense. For most of my life, he was gone or absent; he had become a stoic figure in my mind. To me, he appeared like the lone stout oak on the top of a hill: rough, rigid, and surrounded by thorny leaves. He felt 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 maintained order and a military crispness in his life. But he rarely forgot a birthday, he attended every graduation — high school, college, graduate school — and cherished his family’s accomplishments with an every expanding array of photos on his walls. When I needed a kidney he stepped up without hesitation and gifted me a part of himself which I had for 25 years. He was a strong presence in my life. But still, he remained distant.
But in the years after my mother’s death, as we both began to soften towards each other, I developed a new relationship with my father. Slowly, he opened up and I began to understand who he really was. The metaphor of a stout oak — rough and tough on the outside — 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 endured. For he was the one who had spent years running missions while his fellow pilots died or were taken captive. He was the one who had spent years at sea defending his country while missing his family. He watched his beautiful his wife suffer through each new deployment. But he held it all in — for us — because that’s what he was taught to do. He was of the Greatest Generation and his job was to support his family, the Navy, and his country — without complaint. 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 had pushed all of us to achieve great things. All along my father had been in my life, supporting me. He had cherished every accomplishment and loved every child. Far from being absent, he had been a strong presence throughout my life, but one I didn’t see. He was like a dark oak on the hillside in dawn’s wet, fog-shrouded moments, dripping with nourishing water falling off its thorny leaves. He stood through fierce winter storms with sturdy pillars and helped bring the spring with bright yellow poppies and blue lupines erupting in a celebration of life. Like the old tree in the grassy meadow, I finally saw that inside that stout oak was a heart of gold. Inside I saw a man standing proud, tall, and quiet, and strong for his family and his country.
And now, as I walk the white beaches with my children and sleep in my parent’s house among the oaks, I hold the hopes for my children and they live in their own dreams because my parents sacrificed to give that to me. My parents absorbed the brunt of our turbulent life, the constant shifting of our homes, as they had faced the reality of every military family that one day my father might not come home. Thanks to them, my life is my own and I live in a free country. Like the sugar beaches of Carmel and the stout oaks on the hillsides of Monterey, their hopes and dreams are forever a part of the landscape of my life.