I loved my Dad, but it wasn’t always easy. He was older than most of the other kids' dads. He had fought in World War II so he got a later start in life, than some of the other dads I knew. But because he was a WWII vet, I was fascinated with anything and everything to do with him being a soldier. He had some of his old army stuff up in the attic. Sometimes I would bring it down and ask him questions.
He wasn’t always willing to talk about it, but sometimes, depending on his mood he would tell me some stories. The stories he told were usually pretty funny. He never talked about the actual fighting. I used to think that was strange. I asked my mom about it and she said he didn’t want to relive the bad stuff. She told me that he still had nightmares sometimes about the war. I had no idea. He always seemed so calm, but sometimes distant. He would get that look in his eye and he was a million miles away.
He was pretty handy around the house. He would never let mom call anyone to fix things. He would always say, “A man has to take care of his own house.” He would let me watch and sometimes even help if he was working on something. He thought it was important that I knew how things operated. “There are many things you need to know to be a good man, a good person.” Dad would say.
One day, Dad told me to get some boxes out of the attic. I accidentally knocked a box over and saw something shiny in the dim light. When I picked it up, I realized I had found my Dad’s old dog tags. I had never seen them before. One side had a nick out of it and they looked really beaten up. I thought they looked really cool and put them around my neck. My friends would be jealous.
When I brought the stuff down, my Dad noticed the dog tags around my neck. He stopped and stared for a second. I could see he was lost again. Then he said, “Why are you wearing those? Give them here, you can’t wear those. That’s not some cheap necklace from the mall. Men wore those, soldiers in battle. Some men died wearing those. Don’t ever do that again.” He took the dog tags and went into his bedroom and shut the door. I was stunned.
I told my Mom what had happened and she said “Don’t worry about it. It will be fine. Sometimes he just gets upset.” I felt horrible. I never meant to set him off. I just wanted to wear the dog tags because they had been his. I was proud of him. I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect towards him or anyone else that had served.
A couple of days later, Dad came home from work and said “Hey, Mark come sit with me on the front porch. I want to talk to you for a minute.” Oh, man, now I’m gonna get it, I thought. Dad was already sitting in one of the two lawn chairs and I sat in the other. He was looking down at the ground and I just waited for him to speak. Finally, he started.
“First,” he said, “I’m sorry about the other day. You didn’t mean to do anything wrong and I overreacted.” He suddenly seemed so...human. This wasn’t the tough, out-of-my-way, I don’t need any help Dad I had known my whole life. He continued “I haven’t seen those dog tags in a long time. They don’t hold a lot of good memories. I saw things during the war, no man should have to see, like friends die and enemies die too. We were mostly boys, fighting for our friends and families. Truth is, we were all not much older than you are right now. Many of them never had the chance to get a job, get married and start a family.” As he talked, he pulled something out of his pocket and held it tightly in his hand.
Finally, he opened his hand revealing his dog tags. “I can’t change the bad things that happened in my life and you won’t be able to either. I might have been a little tough on you at times, but it’s for your own good.” He held up the dog tags while he continued, “These dog tags represent a difficult time in my life, but it was still important. I don’t want you to ever know pain like that and that’s why you can never have these.” He put them in his pocket and brought out something else. “Give me your hand.” he said. I put my hand out and he placed something in it.
I looked at my hand and it was dog tags, not his but new, shiny dog tags. “These are for you. They come without pain, but at some point you will have some. But a man takes what’s given him, the good, the bad and makes the best of it.” I couldn’t believe it but I saw tears in my Dad’s eyes. He said “I know I don’t say it, but never doubt that I love you. Some day when I’m gone, you can honor me by being the best man possible.” With that, he gave me a hug and walked into the house. I sat there speechless. Then I finally looked at the dog tags. They were shiny stainless steel. He had it inscribed and as I read it, I started to cry, it said. “ To My Son Never forget that I love you. Life is filled with hard times and good times. Learn from everything you can. Be the man I know you can be, Love Dad”
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