I remember my first 4th of July, as a small boy, perhaps 6 or 7 years old. My Mom and Dad's friends had come to our house to play cards and shoot off some sky rockets. I was kinda bored, waiting for dark and the fireworks to begin. I decided to go into the basement and play. There in the middle of the basement floor set all the things my dad was going to take to summer camp in a couple weeks. He spent his two week summer training at Camp Ripley, Mn. In later years, as a teen, I would accompany Dad to summer camp and work in the mess hall as a helper while he trained.
My dad was my hero, through and through. I always loved looking at his military gear. Most of all I was always intrigued by his footlocker. His name, rank and service number stenciled on the side in dark green paint. It made it seem so official and yet so mysterious. I wanted to get a closer look at this big mysterious box. There was a large lock on the hasp but it was hanging open. As I gingerly peeked inside I saw the usual socks, underwear, hankies, belts, a deck of cards, a couple packs of Raleigh unfiltered cigarettes. He told me in later years he liked to stock up on them at camp because they were so cheap. This was in 1954 or 1055, so I doubt they were much more than $1.50 to $1.75 a carton.
Anyway, as I continued looking around I noticed that the top display section lifted our. I grabbed it and lifted it gently out of the footlocker and sat it on the floor. There were shirts and slacks, khakis and fatigues. Under the top shirts, there in the corner was something shiny. It looked like leather. What treasure was this? I picked it up and looked closely at it. I didn't recognize it. I had never seen it. Wait, there is a flap with a snap on it. I wondered what treasure could possible be tucked inside there.
I lifted it up to get a better look at it and the snap must have been open. As soon as I lifted it up a big black metal thud hit the floor. About the same time it hit the floor, Dad came down the basement steps to check on me. He surveyed the situation and yelled at me..."Allen, get back. Don't touch that! It can hurt you!" He rushed over, picked it up, put it back in the leather pouch, stuck it back in the footlocker, closed the lid and locked the lock.
He looked sternly at me and asked me if I was OK. I answered "Yes Daddy. I'm OK. Why what's the matter?" By this time his eyes were a little moist and he had a strange look on his face. He didn't answer me. I asked him, "Daddy, what was that thing?" This time he answered me..."a gun". "A gun? I asked, "like they kill people with Daddy?" "Yes, Allen." "Daddy, did you ever kill anyone with your gun?" His reply was a muffled sound I could not make out. In later years I found out his answer was "More than I wanted to..."
As I grew into a teen, my father and I talked of his service in WWII. He was stationed in the Philippines. Later on, when the conflict in Korea broke out he went back in and spent time there as well. We often talked of going back to the Philippines for my graduation. We were going to retrace his steps. He always wanted to show me how beautiful he thought the country could be without the war and the pain.
As I grew into a young man, I spent my time in the service, from 1968 to 1977. I was one of the lucky few that received a good assignment. But during those nine years, I learned what that expression was on my father's face that night in the basement. It was the same expression you have when you watch your best buddy suddenly go limp as he is hit with a stinging round. It is the same expression you have when a casket is closed for the last time. It is the expression you have when death stares you in the face and snatches something important away from you...and you know there is absolutely nothing you can do...it is too late to stop it...you can only pray.
My father and I grew much closer as adults. We often talked about the military, politics, the stock market, anything serious. He taught me a lot about life. Some of it I didn't like, but it was the truth. Sometimes the truth isn't always likeable, but you can't change it, so you learn to accept it.
When he died, he had a military funeral. As I stood before his casket, at graveside, the rifles fired their salute and taps played, I raised my hand to salute him. That night in the bedroom is my earliest memory of my dad and his funeral is the last. This highly decorated hero of WWII and Korea had carried a lot of burden throughout his life. I think it was responsible for a lot of the phases in his life, good and bad. But he was my hero. His valor and courage carried him through combat as surely as they carried him through life.
My father was only one of millions of men, and women, who gave their all for their country, without question but carried a painful burden when they returned home. I will certainly remember him and all the rest this Independence Day. They paid for our freedom. Let us not forget them.
Allen Harp is founder of American-Valor.com, a loving tribute to all the men and women who serve in the military to protect our freedom.