Much of the Western world’s attention rightly focused in recent days on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the end of the Nazi Reich and the awful sacrifices made by so many, only a few of whom remain with us still.
“We are gathered here on Freedom’s Altar,” said President Donald Trump in France during uncharacteristically bombast-free remarks focused on others. “On these shores, on these bluffs, on this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood, and thousands sacrificed their lives, for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.
“Today, we remember those who fell, and we honor all who fought right here in Normandy. They won back this ground for civilization.”
Contemplating from afar the achievements and suffering of that day and the bloody uncertain months that followed, to me, is like gazing at distant stars in the dark sky of a clear night. You can see them by the thousands. But the colossal magnitude of it all, the sheer scale of the undertakings, costs and suffering are impossible to grasp, let alone comprehend.
That was the stark combat front. Another was the home front, which has drawn less celebration over the years of its commitments and sacrifices by millions back home building the war materiel and supporting the families who worked, waited and prayed.
A far less lethal endeavor to be sure, but one that forged a national unity that muted bitter politics. It was an equally vital one to preserve the national life and morale that others were fighting to restore elsewhere.
My father was a small part of that. He tried to enlist in the Marines. But the doctor examining potential recruits seemed to think having but one working eye was a disqualifying drawback.
So, my father memorized the eye chart and returned a few weeks later to try the Army. But it was the same doctor. He was suspicious, so suspicious that he asked my father to read the eye chart — backwards.
“What happens if you get shot in your good eye?” he scolded.
“The same thing that happens when anyone gets shot in the eye,” was the reply.
As a youngster then, I did not note much the absence of neighborhood fathers. Mine was there, which was what mattered. Less than five years later, the same cycle of missing fathers, fearful families and substitute men-of-the-house reoccurred during the Korean War.
My father was usually very busy on weekends and nights, performing the kinds of household plumbing repairs, furnace fueling and projects that husbands along our block would normally handle themselves if they weren’t occupied far away.
I did notice that children in those other homes had the exact same handmade, wooden cars and trucks that my father had made me in our basement. I thought that simply coincidence.
I also noticed how everyone outdoors froze at the sight of a Western Union messenger on a bicycle. They watched closely whose house he chose to deliver dreaded news. My mother would immediately go there too, leaving me with neighbors.
Today’s grocery stores advertise delivery as if it’s new. In those days, vendors of vegetables, meats and baked goods came right to your street the same time and same day each week, sometimes twice.
Gas was rationed. So, every week, my mother and I carried cans of used fat to a collection center. Turns out, such cooking refuse contains glycerine used in explosives.
Film was rare and expensive. Someone would acquire a roll of eight and sell six to friends. Which explains the existence of only two photos from my early childhood.
No TV, so each family had appointment radio, which included cherished musical, escapist comedy and mystery entertainment with snippets of censored war news.
After the news some nights, my father would take me to the basement. That’s where I learned the alphabet. With his huge arms wrapped around me, his strong hands guided mine to saw each letter from wood, then sand it smooth because he said it was important to do things right.
I could paint each letter any color I wanted. Except a, e, i, o, and u had to be red for some reason.
Now, here I am so many decades later marking yet another anniversary of those distant days on the home front and like many others grasping more each year of the epic violence, carnage and courage rampant in the world back then.
I’m still arranging those same letters from his basement lessons, too — carefully sanded, of course. Only without Dad.