… but not mine. The stories of this week—the second of the Herman Cain sexual harassment/assault saga, the first of the child rape tragedy at Penn State, and more heroically that of Veterans’ (or Armistice) Day—have overwhelmed the emotions of many. The Cain story has strengthened paranoia on both sides of split allegiances; the Penn State tragedy has produced as many allegiances as players, excepting any sympathy for the alleged perpetrator. Only the stories of vets seem to offer any reinforcement to our sense of humanity.
Not all vets’ stories end happily, obviously, but enough end with some reason for inspiration that they remain compelling in the telling and retelling, and particularly in the hearing. Perhaps some seek to escape the horror of war, or to overcome or even whitewash it. I suppose in a sense mine does all three, particularly because of a central element of it: my father never made it any further than Camp Croft, South Carolina, and a surgeon’s scalpel in Atlanta. My story also differs from most in that although my father plays the central role, a doctor played the role of hero.
My story takes place during World War II, at least the crux of it does, but involves two men who never fought a lick. The first of the dramatis personae, Russ Lynch, my father, played multiple sports in high school, a year of prep school, and college: football in the fall through his freshman year at Boston University (B.U.) after not making the team at Bowdoin College, hockey most winters except that freshman year at B.U., and baseball in the spring. Not only did those sports shape his life, they—at least football—may have delayed his death.
His freshman year at B.U. Dad, who played end in a two-way scheme tore the cartilage in his knee. The coach, thinking to do him a favor, brought the 160-pound convalescent the assignments for guard for the next fall. My father, his scholarship on the line, told the coach to get lost, rather less politely. Word reached the hockey coach, who saved his career by offering him the insane choice of playing hockey beginning his sophomore year. He took it, lame knee and all. He played defense for a year, then his natural position of center his last two years, captaining the squad as a senior.
I loved all his hockey stories as a kid, though he always left out the part about not making the football team at Bowdoin, whose campus and libraries I came to know many years later. That failure shamed him. Another did not: his failure to fight fascism in Europe or imperialism in the Pacific. In fact, he found it rather amusing, and a cause of gratitude.
My father turned thirty-one in early January of 1942, old for conscription into the military but not automatically exempt. Three separate doctors in three separate drafts found my father unfit because of his right knee, as well as his age. A fourth doctor in a fourth draft disagreed. The war bore on and the military needed men, period, fitness be damned.
En route to boot camp in South Carolina my father received his assignment as second man on a bazooka in heavy infantry. Perfect for a guy with a bum knee.
It gets worse. On the first day at Camp Croft, Dad had to climb and then jump off a twenty-foot wall on an obstacle. He warned his sergeant that his knee would not stand the fall. The sergeant took him for a slacker. He climbed and jumped, and his knee gave out so excruciatingly that when the sergeant tried to get him up with a swift kick Dad convinced the man he would risk his life if that boot touched my father. The sergeant got the point, finally.
The Army then did something remarkable. Instead of shipping Dad home, they hospitalized him. An orthopaedic surgeon looked at him. The doctor had developed a series of operations to reconstruct knees injured like my Dad’s. He offered my father six months in the hospital on the Army in Atlanta. My father became a guinea pig, and the surgeon improved my father’s quality of life immeasurably. I often thought of that story while watching my parents dance beautifully at our favorite restaurant on summer vacation.
So, yes, I grieve for the fallen, the amputated, the post-traumatic stressed, and weep with joy at those who return at least physically whole to spouse and kids and parents and siblings. I always used to think Dad cheated his way out of the war somehow, thus cheating me out of war stories to relish as another episode in my private cult of hero-worship. In reality, of course, that idiot drill sergeant and that inventive orthopod prevented my father—and possibly me—from being cheated out of a life.
Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011