by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Mar. 18, 2007
Angel Fire, N.M.
THE PAST THROUGH THE EYES OF OUR YOUNGEST VETS
ANGEL FIRE, N.M., March 19, 2007 -- "Field of Dreams," "Back to the Future," and perhaps a dozen other films offer haunting plots about looking back and watching your own dad chatting, smiling, joking, and interacting in the years before you were even conceived.
As two of America's youngest Army veterans sat at opposite sides of the warming fire, and the clock pushed midnight, I leaned back on the battered green leather couch and tried something new and innovative: keeping my mouth shut.
One was married with two young sons, and the other - my own son - is single. Both young men are about to start public service careers in the civilian world, and both are remarkably modest, worldly, analytical about the war, and refreshingly immature, just like my late dad.
Most of what these young men experienced in Iraq will be told to their most intimate loved ones on two specific dates: never, and if and when they damned well feel like it.
Lots, perhaps too much, has been written by scribes such as yours truly, whose closest thing to war and patriotism and duty, honor, and country was clicking a remote to view the annual Fourth of July PBS-TV concert from Washington, D.C. This isn't about understanding the war but rather understanding the warriors and perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime glance into the soul of your own father.
Calling my late Normandy invasion and Army medic veteran dad a "big kid" is a bit like calling Donald Trump "a bit of a self-promoter." Even little kids thought my dad was a big kid.
Don't read this in the abstract of some warm and fuzzy thought of a grown man rolling on the carpet giving "horsey rides." My Dad had developed, evolved, and perfected the traits of adult childhood to a mastery of sorts. Picking my kids up after school with specific, regular, unbending, unequivocal instructions "not to spoil their appetites before supper" was a challenge to be circumvented and not a request to be obeyed.
It usually took about eight minutes of bored kids picking at peas and carrots, and pushing away anything except ice cream, Jell-O, cookies or cake, to pry the truth from them: they had absolutely promised Grandpa not to tell Mom and Dad that they stopped at White Castle, Carvel, the pizzeria, the Galloping Hills hot dog stand, or on rare days more than one of the above right from school.
No candy before dinner meant that their pockets were filled with candy on the way home, with instructions like these: "If you eat this stuff before supper, don't tell your Mom." Sugar Daddy, Almond Joy, and Chunky wrappers pulled from piles of blue jeans and windbreakers at laundry time eventually gave up the truth.
Anyway, you get the idea. Oh, yeah, one more big general area: asking a 60-year-old child to baby-sit for another child or, heaven forbid, watch them for an entire weekend yields the Hotel Fountainbleu Syndrome. I think I actually took my dad to the fancy resort built and pampered by Miami Beach notable Ben Novak, but they never met each other. No matter, they practiced the same religion: Orthodox Lack-a-Clockology.
Novak figured that if there were no clocks in any public rooms, lobbies, lounges, corridors, etc., in his hotel the guests would "relax" and forget about their workday schedules and probably spend more money.
My dad figured a bedtime instruction at 9 p.m. for one child, and 8 p.m. for another child, or a special tv show ending at 10 p.m. and then bed, were polite suggestions and not anything actually chronological.
Okay, gang, we've spent a lot of time painting this picture, so let's do the time warp again, to that flickering fireplace in a cabin 9,000 feet up the Sangre de Cristos with two little rugrats running wild. Well, they were actually only running wild in between an unlimited library (brought by them on the trip) of cartoons, Disney classics, and screeching Sponge Bob Squarepants characters blaring from the loft. The volume control was set at grid number "52" which was convenient for others in the house, since no one could be confused about making the tv louder or softer. The number "52" is the maximum setting, and your choices on how to modulate the audio were simplified by half.
Fulfilling long established sexist stereotypes of the women in the house not wanting to hear "war stories," they exercised the maturity obviously lacking in the men. After clearing the dishes, the ladies retired to the basement to watch tv, sit in rocking Barc-o-Loungers (the La-Z-Boys of their day for those readers under age 40), chain-smoked Newport 100's washed down with regular strength Pepsi and Moosehead beer. In another fireplaced room sporting a sign, "This is a Work-Free Smoke Area," they took turns playing a genuine replica coin-fed Las Vegas casino slot machine.
So the kids behaved like kids, their father occasionally looked their way and asked if they needed a new DVD to watch, and my son sliced open a box plastered with a full-color "Superman" label mailed from another Army friend in Louisiana. Midnight be damned; inside the box were Superman decals and stickers in a Superman basket filled with chocolates and hard candies.
He shouted up to the loft, "Hey kids! Candy! Wow! Hey, put the DVD on pause, get down here for this great stuff!" and passed a handful of candy to the other warrior.
The two citizen-soldiers washed down their candy with draughts of Warsteiner from longneck bottles, and then for a split second I thought the chain from grandfather to grandson had been broken. What sounded like a command from a responsible adult boomed from my son's throat to the two kids:
"Go easy on this candy late at night," he said, as he handed them some Razzles or Frazzles or Dazzles or Sparkles or some such stuff. Ummm, going easy on the hard candy at midnight? Sounds very adult, very caring.
The thought lasted about a second when he quickly handed the kids foil-wrapped chocolates and suggested, "Yeah, eat these firstn - they're softer, so you can eat them faster before you eat the other ones."
There were stories of fishing in Alaska, the arctic survival training which the U.S. government so wisely made mandatory before sending these soldiers to the 120-degree heat of Rahwah, Mosul, and Baghdad, and the inevitable recitation of names. One, then two, then a few more, and pauses and hushed tones, and nods, and "what-ifs" and "How is his widow doing? Did you see his kids?"
I was an interloper. It wasn't mentioned, but they were talking through me and not even at me or with me. The young vets were at a "Band of Brothers" level closed to all but those who serve. As I left the room, without a word and without their noticing, I smiled at seeing my own dad at age 20 or 30 sitting with some buddy from Caen, St. Mére d'Eglise, Hay du Puis, or the Rhineland. It wasn't my place to be there, but for the first time I understood what made my dad so tolerant of life, and fun, and kids being kids, from the moment he returned from World War II.
The young veterans already knew that bedtime and candy and watching kids laugh and smile were something so precious that every second of every day of the rest of their lives they would wonder about the brothers and sisters in arms who will never share the smile of a child.
How foolish I was to think of my dad as big kid.
How foolish of me to think that two cases of beer would be enough for these guys.