Monday, June 20, 2011

...from a daughter's heart

Sgt. John W. Strickland, European Theater of Operations, WWII, 1942-Dec. 25, 1945

I became a traveler late in life but my wanderlust was born early, in my daddy's lap.  A south Georgia country boy, he grew up on a dirt farm at English Crossing, the name given the intersection of the nearby clay road and railroad track.  He told me how he would stand by the track and wave first at the engineer, then the men in the caboose.  "Some day," he would declare, "I'm going to get on that train and go everywhere."

He made his first journey by train in 1942. His first stop, basic training in Nebraska. Then back across the country to Virginia. A convoy to New York, then across the Atlantic on a Liberty ship. Each time we sail past the Red Oak Victory - a floating museum docked by the factory where wartime vessels were built - I think of all who crossed in these ships. Thirty years ago, Daddy and I toured the battleship U.S.S. Alabama. I stopped to read a sign and missed him for a moment. Then I found him in front of the roll of those who'd died, tears running down his face as he searched the names. When he turned, his shoulders straightened. He left, his bearing as erect as that of the young soldier in the old photos he kept in a tattered cigar box. [Note: The old ship mentioned above, The Red Oak Victory, has been restored. If you’re interested, here’s the rest of that story:] 

Daddy rarely talked about the war. If asked, he'd tell me a funny story. Once, in England, he dove under the nearest cover during a bombing raid, only to discover afterwards that he'd been lying beneath a fuel truck. Ten days before his death, I discovered that he had landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. This rare, serious disclosure seemed, in retrospect, a foreshadowing. Only after Daddy's death would my Uncle George tell me that my dad had fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  

In my family, we are not known for military prowess.  My great-great-?-grandpa refused to fire his rifle in the Civil War. "Don't have any arguments with anybody" was his reply to the officer who ordered him to shoot or be shot. Grandpa fired up into a tree when the man turned his back, took a personal leave later that night, AKA AWOL, and spent the rest of the war working on a farm in Ohio.  Afterwards, he returned to Georgia where he farmed peacefully for decades. Let it be noted that, during the war, his wife stood off raiders who were intent on taking the only milk cow and the chickens. Wielding a pot of boiling lye behind her skirt, she waited until just the right moment... Needless to say, her children never missed a serving of scrambled eggs or a cup of milk. In a similar vein, when asked about the war, Daddy would talk about the people he met. Loved the Brits. Loved the French. Loved the Dutch. Loved the Germans. "And someday," he would add, "I'm going back." He wanted to see the Black Forest in peacetime.  To walk through Paris on a spring afternoon. To return to Normandy. 

Like countless others who suited up and showed up - for their country, for their families, in war, in peace, in factories or behind desks - Daddy was an anonymous figure. A success in business for many years, he struggled at the end of his life. But he never quit suiting up, showing up, loving. His death was only a passage. Our love remains deep, steadfast...eternal. Last September my son's family and I spent a week with Uncle George and Bobbie at their mountaintop condominium in North Carolina. Still sailing at 84, this dear man - the last of my close relatives - has been a second father to me. We talked into the early morning hours. And he told me yet another story I had never heard.  

Widowed at an early age, my grandmother Utah (her mother was named Missouri - don't ask) raised three boys on that dirt farm at English Crossing. During the Depression. While her three sons slogged through in Europe, she battled breast cancer alone. She died four years before I was born. All who knew her speak of her with great love and admiration. I have pictures of her, always smiling. But she had moxie, too. Daddy and George often recounted an now-legendary tale about my Uncle Hardwick. In trouble for some boyhood transgression, he climbed behind the well and threw the bucket into the water. Then he screamed as if falling down the deep cylinder. Grandma came running out onto the back porch. Hardwick jumped up and said, "I coulda died. Aren't you glad you didn't spank me?" She answered quickly, nimbly and with no words. 

Over the years, Daddy spoke lovingly of Old Sam, the farm mule, his ever-present companion. He told me of plugging watermelons and smoking rabbit tobacco behind the smokehouse.  And recounted his fear of being called to speak in front of all in his one-room schoolhouse. But he never told me of his fourteenth summer. Uncle George did, tears running down his face. Grandpa had died. The family was in need of immediate funds and a cash crop. That summer Daddy and Old Sam cleared twenty-two acres of pine woods, one tree at a time.  He chopped the tall loblolly pines down and cut them up for firewood. Stacked the logs by the old barn.  Then he and his trusty mule pulled up the stumps, one after another. When this was done, Daddy and Sam plowed those twenty-two acres, planted cotton, tended the crop and picked it in the fall. 

I have all of Daddy's wartime letters to his mother. And hers to him. His were peppered with assurances that all was well but he worried about her and Granzie (his grandmother). The headings tell the story. "Somewhere in England, April 14, 1944." "Somewhere in England, April 23, 1944." "Somewhere in England, May 16, 1944." "Somewhere in England, May 27, 1944." A gap. "Somewhere in France, June 12, 1944." His journey continued through Germany. Discharged on Christmas Day, 1945, he never made it back to the Rhine or strolled a boulevard in Paris. He never knelt on the beach at Normandy.  

I also have his old Bible, now swathed in plastic wrap to keep the loose bits intact.  The one his mother gave him as he boarded a train in south Georgia. From the English Crossing of his youth to another more famous one and then back again, that black leather Bible traveled every step with him. 

God willing, I will carry this with me some day. To Germany. To Paris and Amsterdam. To Normandy. And Daddy will travel with my heart. If I do not make it, I hope the next generation will try. And love the Brits. The Dutch. The French. The Germans. 

For you, Daddy, and for all of you Dads, 
from the bottom of a little girl's heart, 
from the depth of a woman's soul,
thank you.