My Facebook page is full of friends who are observing Memorial Day. There are posts asking me to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country. I am also seeing pictures of grandfathers, fathers, brothers, and now too, I’m inspired to note, mothers and sisters who have also proudly served our country’s armed forces. Hats are to all of my friends, and I join them in celebrating the pride that they have in their loved ones.
Memorial Day for me, however, has always been more about outdoor grills, hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, and corn on the cob. And I suffer from absolutely no guilt in admitting this. It all comes honestly from my dad, himself a World War Two veteran who served honorably overseas in the Army Air Corps. Dad absolutely loved the very beginning of summer, and while he wasn’t really much of a great outdoor chef, he affirmatively enjoyed the start of grilling season. He didn’t much go in for flag waving or anything in the way of outward displays of patriotism. On Memorial Day morning, he and I would go to our town’s annual parade, and he would always poke fun at his fellow veterans for wearing their now too-tight uniforms (“My god, are they THAT cheap not to take it to a tailor?“). Then immediately afterwards we would head to the grocery store to get everything for dinner that night. If my cousins came over, he and my uncle — himself a veteran who served overseas — would talk about politics, family gossip, movies, TV shows, but never the war.
My dad’s service to his country was carried out with distinction, yet with his own unique twist. An astute and accomplished test-taker, after his basic training he was offered by a commanding officer the opportunity to receive bombardier training in Texas. Following that, he was sent to “map school” for Cartography Specialist training at an army base in Colorado. When he successfully completed that, he then applied for and received permission to attend photography school in Delaware. His version of all of this was that he kept requesting training in order to delay being sent overseas. Although there might be a kernel of truth in that, in fact the more logical answer is that the army needed those specialities for the war in the Pacific. He saw opportunities for skill sets and he took them.
By the end of the war, he was stationed in Iwo Jima snapping pictures of troop movements.
He came home determined to put his experiences behind him and to simply start working. Although former war buddies tried to contact him, local American Legion chapters tried to get him to join, etc., he always ignored those appeals. He knew that others saw and experienced way more conflict than he had, and he was also acutely aware of how stories and egos can grow over time. He just wanted no part of that culture. He was silently proud of his accomplishments, and if prodded he would pull a box from his closet of medals, photos, and certificates. His stories about the war were always funny. Similar to the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, Dad liked to depict some of his senior officers with less than flattering portrayals. When the Vietnam war ultimately became more than simply the “police action” we had been led to believe it would be, he vigorously supported the campus protests against the conflict. At the same time, though, he was enraged by how returning veterans were treated by a disaffected public. He saw all sides to the issue. My relationship with him while growing up would forever be complicated, but he did teach me great lessons about viewing the military with both respect and uncertainty.
On Memorial Day I would watch him happily set up the grill. We always had the oldest, most pathetic one in the neighborhood. While parents of my friends would have the latest Webers and Calorics, we had a rusted Sears Kenmore that sat out all winter with no covering. When gas grills became all the rage, Dad still clung to the Kenmore, with an extra metal support plate fastened underneath because years of hot charcoal and rust had pretty much burned a whole at the bottom. Out of sheer stubbornness, he kept that grill going till it finally gave out during one horrific winter storm, and it was found during the following spring thaw in pieces.
In my own adult life, I’ve had a couple of fancy propane grills with side burners to sauté things such as onions or peppers. Although more efficient, and certainly impressive-looking, I always used them with a bit of guilt at the excess and cost. I know my dad would have been amused by their complexity, but also turned off by the unromantic nature of their look and design. Simple things are often better — unless we’re talking 12-year-old scotch or top shelf gin, of course. Even he would agree with that.
So in tribute mostly to him, and certainly to all those who are saluting their family members that also served, I went out last night and bought a very small, cheap grill. I know he would approve. Later this evening, I’ll load it up with charcoal and we’ll do Memorial Day the old-fashioned way.
Here’s to you, Dad. I’d salute you, but I know you’d only roll your eyes.