Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Colonel and His Daughter

[Today seems like the right day to post this.]

Although I stopped writing about Arlington Cemetery funerals a while back, I do have one more to acknowledge. In this case, though, the story is one of a full life rather than early death. Earlier this year, an 86 year old retired lieutenant colonel was laid to rest at Arlington, one of the many World War II veterans now passing from this life. The Washington Post obituary was pretty typical: 20 plus years of military service followed by a variety of military related civilian jobs in the DC area. What makes this funeral notable is that the deceased was the father of my first Great Love.

Sure enough, Joan was listed among the survivors along with her brothers and sisters. Her last name was different but I recognized her instantly and a flood of memories came back. No doubt we all have stories of love pursued and love lost. I’m hardly unique in that respect. Where my story takes is odd turn is Vietnam.

We were “together” about two years, of which we were apart for 18 months. But even as a distance relationship, it worked for me. Hell, I was on my way to and in Vietnam. For the first time in my awkward life, a pretty woman liked me. We were friends and becoming lovers. The disappointment of being separated from this wonderful person after only a few months together was pretty intense but the hope she offered during the time we were apart was vital. Joan was a strong connection to the life I had once lived and wanted to begin anew. She was at National Airport when I came home on that amazing morning in January 1972. Although our relationship did not last, our time together was both an awakening and a godsend.

Her family also welcomed me. Her mom and siblings were friendly, very interested in music; a younger brother played flute in a rock band and Frank Zappa was well regarded in the household. The colonel was reserved, and I can imagine, not always thrilled with me. I was not reticent about my opposition to the war. I had just completed an excellent course in US diplomatic history(*) and, of course, knew everything, so I can only imagine how that came across to this retired senior officer. I was pretty angry too. Still, he welcomed me, even inviting me to share evening martinis with him. Months later upon learning I had been assigned to infantry, Joan reported him saying something like “Good. He’ll get his fingernails dirty.” I took his words more as a barbed jest–he had some snark in him–rather than hostility. (I did, indeed, have clean fingernails since I paid some attention to basic hygiene. He was right, though.)

Occasionally, I think I went to Vietnam to prove myself to the colonel and to show myself worthy of his daughter. I try not to think that since: A) it’s a really stupid thing to do (not that I was beyond doing stupid things) and B) the decision involved more than Joan and her father. But they were part of it all, certainly the best part, and I have always been thankful for Joan’s love and her family’s support during that time. Our relationship did not last but my gratitude sure has. I sent a card to the family through the funeral home offering my condolences and recalling fondly their kindness to me during that time. Now, I wish I had explicitly said, “Thank you.” Certainly, much of what was positive in my life then came from Joan and her family. I've never forgotten.

My most enduring memory of the colonel is from December 1970. Joan and her parents accompanied me to National Airport for my flight to Oakland where I would process into Vietnam. I don’t remember too many details from that night but I do remember the handshake, hugs, good wishes and all three of them standing in at the gate as I walked down that ramp.

Godspeed, colonel. Thank you, your family and Joan especially for everything.

* Norman Graebner’s course was exceptional. His ideas and passion made a 75 minute lecture fly by. His understanding of American diplomacy and interests is as relevant today as it was three decades ago.

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Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

godspeed colonel. one of my mentors while i was doing the mormon placement thing in tempe getting a real education was an english teacher who had been at pearl harbor. he was a cook on the arizona who was ashore that morning getting supplies organized. he saw his ship, his home, his buddies all blown up in an instant. i stopped by to see him before i went off. he told me "i hope that none of my stories gave you the impression that i think this is a good idea." i told him that i was a warrior and that this is where the fight is. he said "i understand that. try not to get any on ya."

it got all over me.

8:41 AM  
Anonymous gail zappa said...

in response to rez dog and with thanks for his post and the first comment that followed today . . .

Had my father lived he would now be 92. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Some years ago I went to see his grave. His service in World War II was noted on his tombstone. And Korea. But not Viet Nam. The next to last time I saw him was in Greenwich Village in August, 1967. He had come to see me and meet for the first time the father of my child (then due in September) to whom I was not married. I was living in ("sin," - thanks, Mom), as my father who was equal parts philosopher among his other persuasions, recognized, a barely furnished apartment with no view of anything but the debris below the fire escape behind the Garrick Theater - and with my fave rave, a guitar-player (!!!) - all of 26 years of age - who had the longest hair on a man (not to mention the facial hair) my father would have seen since the film Samson and Delilah - or a recent, news-challenged and highly compromised Time Magazine article. Inside, the view also contained the detritus of living with a musician - dead guitar strings and packs of new ones and picks and the nuts and tiny bolts of bridges that had gone too far, whammy bars and various neanderthal equipment bits and cords, and cases, and mics and stacks of music manuscripts, and our little art department of sheets of letraset and pens and ink and erasers and straight edges and onion skins and mechanical layouts, the faithful little portable typewriter, various recording devices and ancient reels of tape - and albums (!) and for my part, a cheezy little sewing machine - and our cat, with whom we shared the bathroom. Not pretty. Oh, and the ever-present briefcase. My dad was a full blown Captain in the United States Navy. He was a hero. He flew bombers in WWII fer gawdsakes. He was honored with medals for serving over there and here and in Korea. He was a Weapons Expert - and on his way to Viet Nam (although I did not then have any idea of his destination). And here he was, at our door. In our 'living' room. Sitting on the only chair. And then, talking into the night were the two most important men in my tiny life at that time. And they spoke of many things - cold light, space travel, a big bang or two and even running for office. They were going to explore the possibility of winning the presidency on a military ticket. They planned to continue the conversation a few weeks thence in Europe in September - when that guitar would be heard there live for the first time! Alas, my father died a day before his flight to London, two days after I married the man who would eventually write "Didja Get Any Onya?" and two weeks before the birth of his first granddaughter, Moon Unit Zappa.

In 1967 Viet Nam was not a war. Yet my father served there under fire. I am certain, for him, it looked and felt just like the real thing. I had a lot of beseeching to do to get Viet Nam added to my father's tombstone. It does not make up for all the years without it or without knowing. Reality is not like that. It does. But, unhappily, people who do not, will not, or refuse to pay attention, get in the way.

gail zappa, fathers day, 2007

3:41 PM  
Blogger Evil Spock said...

Beautiful story sir.

10:27 AM  

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