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Kerth: Battling the elements and the remorse of chances lost

Published: Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Several years ago, after hunting deer with my father from dawn until dusk in a cold November Wisconsin drizzle, Dad and I returned right at sunset to the screened porch of the cottage to swap our guns for fishing rods. Without even going inside, we joined my brother and a few other men and walked the mile or so to the Petenwell Flowage, where we set up on the beach to fish for walleye through the night.

We built a fire on the beach and cooked some pepper steak, then slumbered through the night on the damp sand, wrapped in ponchos to keep the drizzle at bay.

As dawn neared, we hoofed back to the cabin, dropped off our fishing gear and picked up our guns for another day hunting deer in the woods.

At the end of that day, we rejoined back at the cabin, where I said to Dad, “You know, I think that’s the longest I’ve ever spent outside at a stretch.”

“Huh,” Dad said. He seemed surprised.

“No, I’ve spent weeks camping and all,” I said. “Wilderness canoe trips in Canada in the summer – things like that. But there was always a tent somewhere tucked into a 24-hour period. I mean, I think that’s the longest I’ve gone without even a bit of canvas over my head. In the rain. In the cold. Forty hours or so.”

“Huh,” he said again.

That was Dad. He had plenty to say that could trump any adventure you might propose. But he wouldn’t say it unless you asked.

I took the bait. “Why?” I asked. “What’s the longest you’ve ever spent outdoors without even a tent for shelter?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Six weeks. Maybe longer.”

Of course. During World War II, he had been a grunt stationed in New Caledonia, just east of Australia and south of Guadalcanal, fighting the Japanese. He had served in the army five years altogether, including a stretch that was almost finished when the war broke out.

“Outside the whole time?” I asked. “Not even a pup tent?”

He snorted a laugh. “No tent,” he said. “A hole, sometimes, if we were lucky and had the time to dig one. Or a tree trunk. A poncho under us if it was dry. Over us if it rained.”

Maybe it was the guns in our hands that had loosened his memories, for it was about as much as Dad ever shared with me about his experiences in the war. Like a lot of other veterans, he spoke little of the nightmare of those years, and then only grudgingly. He felt it was best, I guess, to leave hell behind without a second glance back. Consider Lot’s wife, who was turned to salt with a twist of her head for one last glimpse of the madness she left behind.

Dad has been dead for nearly 20 years, but this Veteran’s Day I remembered that discussion with him as I read “Helmet for My Pillow” by Robert Leckie, who served at Guadalcanal in conditions that had to be identical to those my father met. Although I never served in the military, every year on Veterans Day I make a point of reading a book written by or about our veterans, as a small way to remember and honor their sacrifice.

And because Leckie’s book sounds a lot like the little I know about Dad’s hitch in the Army, it hit home with me in a way few other books have.

Although Leckie met with plenty of furious combat action and performed feats that were heroic, those scenes play only a small part in his book. Rather, he recounts in vivid detail the day-to-day life of an island-hopping marine with more enemies to battle besides Japanese soldiers.

The choking jungle. The blazing heat. The chill rain for weeks on end.

The scorpion in the food crate. The snake under the blanket. The mosquitoes everywhere.

Malaria. Blisters. Skin peeling from feet that are never dry.

The choice between sleeping in a hole filling with water or crawling onto higher ground where a bullet might find you.

I remember Dad talking about those things when I was a child, for I was born less than three years after the war’s end and the memories were still fresh to him. But blisters and muddy holes are not the kind of thing a child wants to hear about.

No, I wanted to hear about the explosions, the rockets, the flares, the heroism of hand-to-hand combat.

Dad experienced plenty of those things, too. But he spoke little of them.

In time, even Dad’s tales of everyday grunt gripes trailed off. He left the war behind.

I was in my 40s when Dad died. As an adult, I should have sat him down and insisted he tell me more. I should have written it all down, word for word. I should have helped him publish his story for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to read.

But I didn’t. Life got in the way. My life. My easy, carefree life that he went to war to guarantee I would never have to spend a night without a roof over my head, except by choice.

If Dad were here today, I would beg him to tell me his story, if not of the bombs and bullets, then at least of the bugs and blisters. I would apologize to him for waiting so long to ask about something so important.

Dad would smile at my apology and say, “Huh.”

Because that is what heroes do.

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.

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