Father's Day Salute to an American GI and the Greatest Generation

Standing on the beaches of Normandy, a man found himself silent.  Like a scene ripped from the movie Saving Private Ryan, this American GI was overwhelmed with memories.  Memories so vivid, so real, that in an instant he was a soldier again in the 7th Army, surviving the Battle of the Bulge, fighting through the cities of Aachen, Stuttgart, Cologne and Bonn.  The graves before him transcended time, taking him back in history to a time when freedom was on the line.

Born in the 1920s, he grew up in the Depression of the 1930s poor, like most rural American children.  Fresh vegetables were grown in the family garden behind the small frame house.  His mother made sandwiches for school out of homemade bread.  Store-bought bread was for the rich.  He grew up belonging to the Boy Scouts, playing the trumpet in the high school band, and he went to church on most Sundays.

In 1944, this 18-year-old country boy that had never been more than 50 miles from home, found himself going through basic training in the United States Army at Camp Wolters in Texas.  After that he rode the train with hundreds of other young teenagers to New York City for the ocean trip on a cramped Liberty ship to fight in the great World War II.

No amount of training could have prepared him for what he was about to experience.  As a teenager, he, and thousands like him, put his life on the line for freedom.  He saw the concentration camps and the victims of the Nazis.  He saw incredible numbers of other teenage Americans buried in graves throughout France.  But like so many of his generation, he never really discussed the details, only saying that the real heroes were the ones buried in Europe today.

Some 60 years after the war, my hero stood before the monument at Normandy and paid tribute to his heroes.  The price of freedom was enormous.  The memories of the sacrifices made were overwhelming.  Amid the whirlwind of imagery flashing before his eyes, Dad began to recollect life after the war and what victory in Europe meant for Americans, what freedom still means today.

After Germany surrendered, he went back to Fort Hood, Texas, expecting to be re-equipped for the land invasion of Japan.  It was there he met Mom at a Wednesday night “prayer meeting” church service.  Not too long after that, he opened a DX service station where he pumped gas, sold tires, fixed cars, and began a family.

Deciding he needed to go to college, he moved to West Texas and enrolled in a small Christian college called Abilene Christian University.  He and his wife and his two small children lived in an old converted army barracks with other such families of veterans.  He supported us by working nights at KRBC radio and climbing telephone poles for “Ma Bell .”

He finished college, became an engineer and worked 40-plus years for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in Houston.  He turned down a promotion and a transfer to New York City because it wasn’t Texas and he said it was “no place to raise a family.”   Mom and Dad still live near Houston, not too far from where I grew up.

After his recent trip to Normandy, he opened up a little more about the War—still humble about his contributions, but looking back on the significance of victory through the eyes of an 85-year-old-man.  Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t mellowed in his years, he still rants and raves about the East Coast media and he has a strong opinion on politics and today’s fight for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He gives plenty of advice to everyone, including me.

He has two computers in his home office and e-mails with his buddies all around the world.  He still mows his own yard and can fix anything.  He flies the flag on holidays and marches with theVFW.  He goes to church on Sunday and he takes Mom out to eat almost every Friday night.

On Father’s Day we praise all fathers—but we especially should honor all who fought in the great World War II and achieved the victory in Europe.  Without the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation, America would not be the great country it is today.  My hero, my Dad, was one of those individuals.  He is the best man I ever met.  Virgil Poe: a good man, a good father.  That is plenty for one life.

And that’s just the way it is.