Today is Veterans Day.
November 11th: The 11th day of the 11th month. The 11th hour of this day marked the end of World War I in 1918. My father, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War, used to mark that solemn hour by lighting a candle and sitting quietly in his church’s sanctuary.
He did this alone for many years, but word of his simple act of remembrance spread in his Oregon town, and as the years passed, he was joined by more and more people.
Dad passed in 2011. I don’t know if folks still come to his church to light candles on this day, but I like to think they do. I light mine at home in Seattle.
I never went with him to light a candle in his church, nor was it something he did with me as a child. Even so, a lighted candle on this day is one of the more vivid images I have of my father. I don’t need to have been there. I know what this day meant to him, and what it should mean to all of us.
My dad received his draft notice sometime around Veterans Day in 1966. He was sworn into the Army the next month, on Dec. 7, the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He wrote that he never even considered the option of not joining the military when called. He considered it as much a part of his civic duty as voting and jury duty. He was proud to follow in the footsteps of his uncles who had fought valiantly in World War II, saving the world from Hitler. It was his generation’s turn, dad wrote of his call, and he went.
He was 19 years old when he shipped out to Vietnam in 1967. A year later, he was sent home in a wheelchair after stepping on a landmine and losing both legs above his knees. He spent the next 43 in that chair, the rest of his life.
Dad did not speak much of the war when I was growing up. It was always there, a silent member of our family, but I did not understand it. I’m not sure he did either. He called the 1970s the years of his “great unsettling.”
Can you blame him? He not only lost his legs, but he came home to a nation that had turned against the war — and in turning against it, mistakenly turned against the boys we sent to fought it. It was a dark time in our nation’s history.
It was only in dad’s later years that he began to speak and write about his experience in Vietnam.
The candle was a recurring theme. For me, it shed light on one of the men I most loved and admired in the world.
“Light a candle for peace,” he wrote in letters to the editor on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Here you go, Dad. Here’s my candle for peace.