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  • Writer's picturetony

An American Story

This time of year always includes moments of family reflection for me. It was 30 years ago that my Dad passed away. This year is particularly poignant since my Mother passed away at the end of June, marking the end of a generation for both of their families. But any sadness is overwhelmed by gratitude for what they had together, and what they gave to the rest of us.

My Dad was a true "West By Gawd Virginia" hillbilly, and proud of it. Born in 1913, he grew up in the backwoods, and ran away from home in the 8th grade to work as an itinerant farm hand picking apples, chopping spinach, stripping bark from trees for the tanning factory, and eventually as a carpenter. When WW II began, he headed for the enlistment center with some of his brothers (there were 11 kids in the family). The Army guy told him that he was “too old to be cannon fodder” (That was Dad's story, he never wavered from it. I think he was about 29!), so they sent him down the hall to the Navy. He served in the SeaBees (Sea Bee = CB = Construction Battalion, or something like that), building docks and unloading ships in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. He went into the Army after the war. The family joke, which he loved to repeat: “I served thru 3 wars (WW II, Korea, Vietnam) but never fired a gun in anger, except a grease gun. But boy, was I PO’ed when I did that! “  He was a Supply Sergeant, then a Diesel Mechanic. From a 7th grade education, he got a GED, 2 year degree and vo-tech teaching certificate from the local Community college, using the GI Bill. He was the first Master Instructor of Diesel Mechanics at Aberdeen PG. He was very intelligent and well-read in military history, philosophy, religion, and loved the occasional detective novel. Despite surviving the Depression, poverty, hunger, war, unemployment, and a couple of near-death experiences, Dad was a gentle and kind soul, unwaveringly optimistic and happy.

My mother was equally interesting and amazing - and a wonderful mom. She was raised in a wealthy Japanese business family which lost literally everything they owned in WW II. Despite never having seen an American until after the war, she came to this country with her enlisted GI husband and not-yet-two-year old me, barely able to speak the language, with no other family or support system. She grew to be the social and emotional leader of the large Japanese-American community that popped up around an Army base back then (Aberdeen Proving Ground), and was a major lay leader in her church. Momma was smart, funny, beautiful, artistically gifted, extraordinarily kind. In her presence, no person could feel alone or be without a cup of tea in hand. As I have shared with some of you, even through 15 years of Alzheimers, we got many glimpses of her kindness, physical and emotional strength, and joyous outlook.  

They were an odd couple in many dimensions. But they lived and thrived in post-WW II America, paving the way for their three children and serving their community.

This is my family's version of the American Story. It may be a little out of the mainstream, but it's as authentic as any.


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