A Breakfast Serial “Your Story”
The military was part of the fabric of our family. My dad, my brother, and our uncles all served, mostly during World War II. Dad went on to work for the US Army, retiring in 1979 as Civilian Commander of The Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. I served in the USAF from 1969-1973.
While we all served with pride, there were some very pointed differences in what happened when we returned.
When the troops came back home after WWII they returned to a warm, inviting, and welcoming population—and deservedly so.
Things were different in 1973.
Leaving Okinawa I was on a plane filled with GIs going to Travis AFB, most of us for separation.
Once the paperwork was complete, I flew to Philadelphia, PA. The “Red Eye” left around 10:00 p.m., arriving in Philadelphia around 6:00 a.m. the following day and I was excited, planning what I’d say to everyone and how they would look.
Schlepping my duffel bag, I took a taxi, then the subway and a bus to Dad’s office at The Frankford Arsenal. The Arsenal was our second home—Dad worked there, of course, and my family often used the base pool in the summer as our personal recreation center.
I was warmly welcomed at the Main Gate, and they called Mary, the office administrator. I had known her for years. When I was a kid she always had candy of some kind in a dish and invited us to eat. “You don’t have to tell the Ford Boys more than once,” Mom often said. I could hear her on the phone now talking and crying at the same time.
An Army Jeep took me to Dad’s office in the Headquarters Building. I ran up the steps and on to Dad’s office where Mary and several other were crying and covering their mouths and faces so as not to make noise. With a big grin on my face, I put two fingers to my lips as if to say, “Shhhh.”
He looked up, dropped his pen, and said, “My Son.” We ran to each other, shook hands and hugged fiercely. Dad never said, “How are you?” or, “Are you OK?” He was a military man and knew soldiers. “Did you eat breakfast?”
“No,” I replied. “Just some crackers on the flight.”
As we walked to the mess hall, I could see the pride in Dad. His son had served, and now he was home and safe. We sat at a table filled with veterans, acknowledged each other, and I heard my first “Welcome Home.”
You see, when I was riding in the taxi, subway, and bus nobody said anything to me. Most closed their eyes and faked sleep or hid behind their newspapers. No eye contact. No comments. No gestures. Nothing. It was as if I was just another commuter, albeit in a USAF uniform, not someone who had left the humid jungles of Southeast Asia a few days ago where certain people liked to shoot at people like me.
I understood. This was not a popular war, and I was a suspect person. This was fine with me, since I wasn’t looking for hero points. I just wanted to see and be with my family. Service men just do what they are told to do—that’s our job. We leave the politics to others.
As we left the mess hall, Dad reached in his pocket and tossed me his car keys. “Now go home and surprise Mother.”
The drive to our home was a blur; I was surprised I remembered the way. No horn honking. That would spoil the surprise. I rang the bell. Rang the bell again, then knocked on the door. This is not how it’s supposed to be! Mom’s not home. She is probably volunteering at the school or on her daily walk to the stores to buy tonight’s dinner and perhaps a doughnut for herself from Mrs. Feldman’s Bakery.
I began pacing the sidewalk anxiously. Where was Mom? A neighbor saw me, came out, welcomed me home, and asked if I needed anything. “Can I call my brother?” (This was long before cell phones.)
“Can you come over to Mom’s?”
“Cause I’m here!!!”
“I knew it, I knew it. I knew you would come home without telling anyone. I’m on my way.”
“You crazy SOB! Come here,” he shouted screeching to a halt and jumping from his car. We hugged and pounded each other on the back for a long time.
We went to look for Mom. Nothing. Not at the bakery, butcher, 5-and-10, dress shop, ACME, pharmacy. Nowhere. Where was Mom?
We drove back home and there was Mom, at the door, looking out, probably wondering why Dad’s car was home in the middle of the day—without Dad. From a distance Mom didn’t recognize me but as I got closer, she saw it was me and began to shake, tremble and cry. We hugged for an hour, or it seemed like an hour, before we separated and Mom, like my brother, said through her tears, “I knew it, I knew it. I knew you would do this.”
My reply to everyone was, “How many chances will I have to do this again.” So I did it. They all understood and were just happy to have me home.
That night several relatives and neighbors came by for a visit. In our neighborhood, no one ever visited, especially on a happy occasion like this, without a white box filled with sweet treats from Mrs. Feldman’s Bakery. I gorged myself.
Two days later I started work as a laborer for my brother’s friend who had a small floor covering business and needed a pair of hands. That work and the GI Bill got me through college.
Like me, many veterans from various wars came home, got jobs, an education, married and raised families. But even though we’re here and functioning, part of our particular war and those particular places still fester inside us. I guess it will forever. Veterans suffer and struggle with illnesses, physical and mental, that are difficult to prove based on the lack of paperwork and little trust in a veteran’s word. I battle arthritis in my ankles and knees which I can attribute to my time in the military, though I try to do so quietly—not always with complete success. Like many other veterans, I cope, manage and tolerate the silent threat that comes with PTSD, again for which I have no proof.
We weren’t welcomed back then, but there’s still a little time for many veterans. It’s not too late to thank and appreciate. You may not agree with the cause we fought for, but take that up with the politicians and officials. From our point of view, it’s simple. We answered because our country called. We simply did our job. Moving on involves learning from the past, living in the present, and preparing for the future. As a veteran, I believe that if we work hard on that, our country will continue to be a good place to come home to.