The man to the left is my father in 1944, age 19, just graduated from advanced training as a Navy Corpsman, right before he shipped out to the South Pacific and the campaigns of Saipan, Bouganville and "The Big One" (for him), Okinawa. He fought with the First Marine Division on Okinawa, where he was wounded and several times nearly killed by shrapnel from Japanese grenades and once, nearly bayoneted by a Japanese soldier who'd run out of ammunition while my father was trying to stop the arterial spurting of a Marine who'd had his leg severed below the knee by a mortar round. The Marine paid my father back for coming to his aid under fire by, while lying flat on his back, picking up his M-1 and, after shouting "Jesus Christ, Doc, get the f**k out of the way!", shooting the Japanese soldier through the head as came at my father from behind.
My knowledge of his wartime experiences came in "dribs an drabs," over an extended period of time, and reluctantly. I think that it was common of men of his generation, especially tough Irish-American males like him, to be reluctant to talk much about those types of experiences. Their idea of masculinity was tied to a sense of humility in a way that, today, is completely counter-cultural. When you think of the attributes deemed favorable by the current generation, the word "humble" does not come immediately to mind. Their role models in the political, sports, and entertainment arenas are almost invariably preening popinjays.
He taught me many things about what it means to be "a man." Among the many lessons that I learned from him, and then promptly forgot, only to remember years later after he morphed in my mind from the relic of a by-gone era to one of the wisest men I have ever known, was that a strong man is merciful and that only a weak man is cruel. Another was that a "real man" never needs to look for excuses to prove how tough he is. On the other hand, being the captain of his high school boxing team (if you can conceive of a time when high schools--his was a Christian Brothers military academy, actually--had boxing teams), he taught his four sons to box, and told us that the only way to handle a bully was to stand up to him and to never back down, no matter how much punishment we took, especially if we needed to do so to protect another person from the bully. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay his life down for the life of another. He taught all of us that lesson, and my surviving brother and I still remember it well.
Having recently read a scathing attack on the Just War Doctrine of the Catholic Church by a well-known Catholic writer who is a strong progressive on political positions, as well as a pacifist who apparently knows more than the likes of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis, my father's lessons came to my mind. As convinced as this pacifist is that she is right and I am wrong, I am as firmly convinced, in my heart of hearts, that my father and I are right and that she is wrong. That, while war is a last resort and must be waged only under strict conditions and limitations, there are wars that must be fought, and men who must be willing to lay down their lives in a just cause. That is also what the Magisterium of my faith teaches.
One day, either the question will be answered for us both, or the answer will, really, make no difference.
Independence Day seemed to me to be a fitting day to remember my father and to pay tribute to the many sides of masculinity that he both embodied and did his best to inculcate in his sons. Tenderness and strength, love and courage. Two sides of the same coin.
To pull the metal splinter from my palm my father recited a story in a low voice. I watched his lovely face and not the blade. Before the story ended, he’d removed the iron sliver I thought I’d die from. I can’t remember the tale, but hear his voice still, a well of dark water, a prayer. And I recall his hands, two measures of tenderness he laid against my face, the flames of discipline he raised above my head. Had you entered that afternoon you would have thought you saw a man planting something in a boy’s palm, a silver tear, a tiny flame. Had you followed that boy you would have arrived here, where I bend over my wife’s right hand. Look how I shave her thumbnail down so carefully she feels no pain. Watch as I lift the splinter out. I was seven when my father took my hand like this, and I did not hold that shard between my fingers and think, Metal that will bury me, christen it Little Assassin, Ore Going Deep for My Heart. And I did not lift up my wound and cry, Death visited here! I did what a child does when he’s given something to keep. I kissed my father.