One night in fourth grade my dad brought home a present: a world atlas. It was the biggest book I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I was lying on the living room floor poring over the map of France when he joined me. Going from left to right, he pointed to a series of dots on the pages. “I was here, here, here, here, here, and here.”
I wish I’d written down the names of those towns, because that was the most he ever shared about his experience in the US Army during World War II.
I wanted to know more, but he wouldn’t answer. I pressed him on one question in particular: “How many Germans did you kill?” He was at the kitchen table, chatting with my mom, when wearily he turned to me and said “one.”
I was incredibly pleased by that answer. Seriously.
I have no idea whether it was true. As best I can tell from snippets I heard from him and other family members, he served under General Omar Bradley, reached the rank of corporal, and had responsibility for a fleet of vehicles. That said, he once joked about being in London before D-Day and staying at a hotel that had an anti-aircraft gun on the roof. He was on the top floor because he had to man the anti-aircraft gun, but then he slept right through an air raid.
I suppose he could have been both a fleet manager and an anti-aircraft gunner. Or he could have been neither. And I suppose that in either role he could have killed a German, or many, or none.
I’m tempted to research his service time. The Awesome Sister still has his uniform, which will doubtless provide many clues. I did learn one thing through the internet: he joined the army the day after his nineteenth birthday. That means he served more than two years and likely matured twenty. He must have come home a very different person — on the inside, anyway.
When I worked at UC Berkeley, I gained a reputation for staying calm in difficult situations. I was not one of those doom-is-nigh risk managers.
People wondered how I did it. Well, here’s something not a lot people know. The whole time I worked at UCB, I had a photo in my desk. I kept it hidden in an envelope and pulled it out only when I needed it.
It was a beat-up, over-exposed photo of my father, rifle slung over his shoulder, crossing a muddy field near one of those tiny dots in France during World War II. The photo reminded me that no matter how bad a day I was having, by the age of twenty he had gone through much, much worse—whether he killed any Germans or not.
He was a good dad and gave me a great start. My thanks to him and to all the other good dads out there.