Memorial Day 2012
My dad was shot down while piloting his bomber over Berlin on his 52nd run in 1943. He hurt his back parachuting into a tree, and was quickly gathered up by unfriendly Berliners and, after a too-brief stay in a German hospital, shipped to a POW camp where he sat out the end of the war for over a year.
So you’d think today would have some gravitas for me and my family. You’d think that the Rayburn’s would be the ones plastering Facebook walls with Patriotic symbols; and posting photos of wheel-chair bound soldiers leaning over and placing flowers at gravesides; festooning any and every surface with stirring messages reminding Americans why they can BBQ today in relative safety.
But we don’t.
Today I will speak only for myself in an attempt to figure out why.
My old man, a true solider, would come home from the war and breed three boys. None of us ever went into the military. I think I came the closest, ironically, when I was forced to register for the draft in 1976 (thank you, Jimmy Carter). It’s amazing (and fortuitous) that experience didn’t make me a Republican for life. Beyond an occasional, “the army’ll make a man out of ya” aside from my dad, he never pushed any of us toward the service.
Dad never imbued in us, beyond flying the flag on holidays, a sense of healthy patriotism, which is odd considering what he gave for his country, back when patriotism was healthy, and loyalty was pragmatically based. He gave up a good deal of his physical health, as his fall from the sky began an invasive infiltration of the Rayburn genes with arthritis that forced him eventually to walk on two aluminum hips, and which I enjoy the benefits of to this day.
He rarely talked about the war, or his experiences. Part of that I understand. He was not from the bare-all, show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine culture that cheapens so many aspects of life today. Gary Cooper, the strong silent type, was his role model. Sure, psychologists now will quickly label that denial and then set about unearthing all the ‘feelings’ generated by such a life-altering experience. Dad wouldn’t have lasted long on the couch.
You sucked it up and moved on. There are worse credos under which to live one’s life.
As a young boy, I watched giddily as Hogan and gang perpetrated one hoax after another on the German buffoons Klink and Schultz. One day I realized this could be a conduit for my dad and I to connect.
Not a chance. When I asked what he thought of the show, he got very solemn, approaching me and talking to me seriously for one of the few times I can remember. He’d seen the show once or twice.
“It wasn’t like that, son. And it definitely wasn’t funny.” I was too young then, unfortunately, to appreciate yet the more realistic cinematic depiction of “The Great Escape”, which my dad enjoyed and watched a dozen times.
As an adult, I can only imagine his reaction to seeing Klink and Schultz, and comparing them to the cruel, icy, robotic Germans he encountered during his POW experience. There were no bumbling buffoons running prison camps in Eastern Europe.
He kept some mementos from the war; an American Flag, his medals, his tags, his sidearm, and even handed down to me his army jacket from boot camp. But no stern lectures or related historic tales were forthcoming about war. His generation just didn’t talk about it.
To the best of my knowledge, my dad remained proud of his service. He was indeed a patriot, but his distaste for ostentatious display kept him from parading, literally or figuratively, anything that might be construed as self-serving, or bragging. The flag would suffice for this soldier.
You sucked it up and moved on.
Today, four of his offspring remain. Given my literary efforts these days, busy writing “our” memoir, but being forced to fill in so many blanks with my imagination, dad is more on the forefront of my mind than is normal, especially considering his death occurred over 33 years ago.
It has been eye-opening, and to be honest, often delightful to learn so much about his war experience through the extensive research I’ve done. I know so much more now then ever before. Knowledge is indeed power. If I needed to understand my dad any more than I already do, well, I finally had some data with which to work.
My understanding and resulting wariness of patriotism has evolved over the years, which is defined as, quite simply: love for, or devotion to one’s country.
One more definition. Devotion: a religious fervor.
And that’s where I jump off the patriotic gravy train. It’s that underlying fervor, rooted in religion that makes me shy away from most things overtly patriotic. Because, along with the inherent unbending denial of nuance that comes with most things religious, there is but a short step to pernicious ideas like jingoism and xenophobia.
I am well versed in the argument along the political and sociological spectrums of patriotism versus secularism. They don’t necessarily clash in my mind. I know they clash out on the world’s battlefields, figurative and otherwise.
Take 9/11, for example. I wept uncontrollably for most of that afternoon, after leaving work early and watching the horrific events unfold on CNN.
I had some conflicting thoughts, some inner struggle with my unease about patriotism, but I also questioned “Why us?” often that day.
We are the top cop in the world and have been since the Brandenburg Gate opened for eternity in 1989. (Fall of the Berlin Wall).
Like any cop could tell you, mistakes are inevitable, and we have made more than our share. But the good we do for the rest of the world outweighs the bad. So it was with THAT sense of injustice that I felt a rising indignation on September 11, 2001.
But I quickly moved beyond feeling sorry for my homeland.
The bigger picture came charging into my world, and it was devastating.
Man’s inhumanity to man.
Forget for a moment what team you play for. This was the slaughter of innocents for religious and or political gain. It was an affront to ALL humanity. And that has gone on for centuries. And yes, as Americans, we’d never before experienced such an attack on our home field. Those of us not familiar with soldiering, and warfare up close, were so appalled that we were paralyzed, as a nation, for a short time.
I remain curious as to how my dad would have reacted to 9/11. He was a racist, homophobe, etc.; character fallacies I no longer hold against him.
Would he have ranted and raved against the Arabs? I truly don’t know. Had he lived that long, he would have been close to 80 then. Would he have evolved during those autumn years? Mellowed?
I’d like to think so, but that carries with it the whiff of Pollyanna.
Might 9/11 have brought an eruption, like a long-dormant volcano suddenly awakened, of patriotic fervor from this proud POW? It might have. It was obvious that it did for many Americans, veterans and civilians.
Is this all to be interpreted as unpatriotic or disloyal rhetoric. I hope not, but I am not naïve. Some will probably take it that way.
The majority of patriotism I encounter I sense to be of the blind form. People in lock-step with an ideology they don’t truly understand. That way of thinking is simply not for me.
I find these issues to be worthy of analysis and discussion. I rarely if ever automatically take the popular, assumed route when it comes to how the nation is feeling as a whole.
I am thinking of my dad more this Memorial Day than any other.
That may not be patriotic, per se.
But it is love.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.