Today is the 11th day of the 11th month. It is Veterans Day. At the 11th hour on this day in 1918 fighting ceased in World War I, “the war to end all wars.”
Forty-nine years, and several wars later, my father was drafted into the Vietnam War.
He used to mark the solemn 11th hour of Veterans Day by lighting a candle and sitting quietly in his church’s sanctuary.
He did this alone for many years, and he preferred it that way. But word of his simple act of remembrance spread in his Oregon town. As the years passed, he was joined by more and more people, and more and more candle light filled the sanctuary.
Dad passed away 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 my candle at home in Seattle, and I write some remembrance of his tradition like this one.
I never lit a candle with Dad on Veterans Day. It wasn’t something he did with me as a child. It was an observance he started in his later years after I’d left home. Even so, it’s one of the more vivid images I have of my father.
I know what this day meant to him, and what it should mean to all of us.
Dad received his draft notice around Veterans Day in 1966. He was sworn into the Army the next month, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He wrote that he never even considered the option of not serving when called. He considered it as much a part of his civic duty as voting and jury duty, and 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. Just shy of 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 rest of his life in that chair. Forty-three years.
Dad did not speak of the war when I was growing up, but it was always there, a silent member of our family I did not know or understand. I’m not sure he did either. He called the decade after his injury 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, many mistakenly turned against the boys we sent to fight it. It was a dark time in our nation’s history. My brother and me were born during this time. We brought some light back into his life I think.
It was only in dad’s later years that he began to speak some and write a little 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,” Dad wrote in letters to the editor on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Here you go, Dad. Here’s my candle for peace.