I recently read two nonfiction books about soldiers from World War II. One was the memoir Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything by Karen Fisher-Alaniz (2011). It is the story of a woman my age who gets to know her father as a soldier by reading the letters he wrote during his tour of duty in World War ll. Coincidentally, a long-awaited book I had on hold at the library came into my hands right after that: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010). It tells of the remarkable fortitude of one soldier fighting in the Pacific and his tumultuous life after he returned from the war.
Reading these stories made me think about my father, gone since I was in high school. My dad was a quiet, unassuming man, a decorated veteran of World War ll, yet I know virtually nothing about his time in the military. I took so much for granted, never asking for the history behind the medals in the box hidden in his dresser drawer.
Not too long ago, one of my father’s few living cousins visited. She had a small collection of her childhood photos to give to my brother and me, including some of our dad, and she alluded to his time in France. France, we asked? We thought he was in Germany. France, she insisted. No one pursued the issue, but now I am convinced there was so much more to his story than either of us knew. But there is no one left to ask.
When we were growing up, my friends also had dads who were decorated veterans unwilling to talk about the war. None of us knew about our fathers’ patriotism and sacrifices. These are pieces of personal history that shaped our parents’ characters and, ultimately, our own. What a shame their stories so often were left untold.
I understand now that my father took war secrets to his grave, leaving me with the sadness that I didn’t get to know him as a young man, soldier and patriot. I envy Fisher-Alaniz. When her father gave her his wartime letters, it started a conversation between them that I never had with my dad, one I long for deeply. But I am ever grateful for the stories that other soldiers have shared, which give me a hint of what helped to shape my father’s life.
Pepper Evans works as an independent-living consultant, helping older adults age in place. She is the empty-nest mother of two adult daughters and has extensive personal and professional experience as a caregiver. She has worked as a researcher and editor for authors and filmmakers. She also puts her time and resources to use in the nonprofit sector and serves on the Board of Education in Lawrence Township, NJ.