“Don’t hold your breath,” my father said. “You’ll begin to shake slightly, and a millimeter on this end will translate to centimeters or meters on the other end.”
I enjoyed shooting for fun. I would take my BB gun into the forest and shoot cans, bottles, and improvised targets. For my father, however, this was not about fun. It was deadly serious. He was preparing me for war.
“Gently squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull it.”
I did as I was told and hit the bullseye. Though only six years old, this was not my first time through this routine.
“Good.” He then took my gun, dislocated the sights, and handed it back. Thinking this an exercise in gun-sighting, I began to reset them.
“Don’t,” he said. “Use the sights as they are and let’s see where you hit.”
I hit high and to the right.
“Alright,” he continued. “Suppose you don’t have time to re-sight your rifle and you have to continue to use it as is. What do you do?”
This was a new wrinkle to my marksmanship training. I recall trying to think of a scenario where I would not have time, but we were working off of two very different paradigms: he was probably thinking of defending some godforsaken hill in Korea and I was thinking of shooting a gopher rat before it scurried away.
“I aim low and to the left.”
“Good boy. Now do it.”
Lying on my stomach, a U.S. Army bipod on the end of my barrel, I took aim. My previous shot had hit the U.S. Army paper target — everything in our house seemed to be Army issue —“about six inches to the right, and six inches too high. I aimed an equivalent distance down and to the left. I hit the bullseye again and tried to stifle a smile of self-satisfaction.
“I see you smiling.” He chuckled and tousled my hair. “You can’t fool me. It’s okay. You have a right to be proud of that one. It would amaze you how many grown men can’t figure that out.” He shook his head in disbelief as if recalling someone in particular. “I’ll have to make you a Ranger if you keep this marksmanship up.”
“Dad?” I asked somewhat nervously. I had been wanting to ask him this question and this seemed like a good time.
“Can I shoot something bigger?”
“Like what? The idea is to shoot something smaller …”
“No, I mean something bigger than a BB gun. You know, something like an M1 or — ” this was my real goal “ — an M16?”
His eyebrows shot-up in an amused look and then he laughed. “Hell, no. Gettin’ ahead of yourself just a bit, don’t you think little man?”
I must’ve looked crestfallen because he patted my backside and said, “Listen, the recoil on those is substantial for someone your size. Besides, the principles are all the same. If you can consistently hit what you are aiming at with a BB gun, which has no barrel rifling, you’ll never miss with an actual rifle. And you’re already deadly with that Daisy of yours.”
What followed was a lecture on ballistics and the physics involved: muzzle velocities, ranges, how barrel rifling affects a projectile, and what he liked to call “Kentucky windage.” Until the day he died, he could rattle off the data on these things for just about any weapon you cared to name. This was not new either.
My father was not a gun enthusiast. After retirement, he kept nothing in his home beyond basic protection. He belonged to no gun clubs and he never shot for sport. A hunter before the Korean and Vietnam Wars, he never hunted again.
I cannot remember how old I was when this training started. When I was a bit younger than this, he would put his cheek against mine and his arm around my back, gripping the gun with me. He would then whisper instructions into my ear as if the inanimate target was alive and might hear us and return fire. I recall the feel of his stubble and the smell of the Pall Mall filterless cigarettes he smoked incessantly.
I tell this story because it is characteristic of my relationship with my father. Like most military fathers, he left the day-to-day disciplining and training of his children to his wife. But three things, above all others, he thought required his instruction and his alone: shooting, dress code, and shining shoes. Who shines shoes anymore? But in our house, shoes were shined. (Recently, I sat in a church congregation listening to my own son, Christopher, preach, and the thought flitted through my mind that he needed to shine his shoes.)
My father, a career soldier, was in the special forces. I have told part of his story in a series posted on this blog titled “Band of Brothers,” and this Sunday The American Spectator is running a Father’s Day special that will feature the heart of that series. By the time of this little backyard military exercise, he had fought in Korea and Vietnam. As his child, while I was not formally a member of the Armed Forces, I was raised like it.
“If they ever try to draft you,” he liked to say, “Tell them that you’ve already served.”
“But I haven’t served, Dad.”
“Sure you have. You’ve put up with as much Army bullshit as any other noncombatant.”
After his retirement from the Army, my dad’s philosophy on life was pretty simple: “I’m not going to do a damn thing I don’t want to do.” Pithy, eh? And I can say that he remained true to that mission.
For him, joining the Army was a way out of the endless cycle of poor southerners working in the northern-owned cotton mills one generation after another. It also held out the promise of “seeing the world” – how many boys fell for that one? – and of a college education. He discovered that he was an excellent soldier. A member of the famed 82nd Airborne, he was chosen to be a Ranger and then personally selected by (later) Brigadier General James Herbert to be a member of Herbert’s 8th Airborne Ranger Company.
Possessing movie star good looks as a young man, a talent for doing almost everything well, a high I.Q., and a confidence that you felt when he entered a room, all of these qualities – most of which were assets in battle – seemed to conspire against him in civilian life. A ladies’ man in his younger days, he attracted women and they were a source of trouble for him. An elite soldier, he was nonetheless no match for the emotional combat he encountered in that theater of warfare. When things went wrong, he performed something of a reverse retreat and volunteered for combat, going back to the place where he felt most useful and, paradoxically, safest: the battlefield.
Once when he was asked which enemy he feared most, the Chinese, the North Koreans, or the Vietnamese, he quipped: “You’re missing one: Women. But after that, the North Koreans.”
He met my mother while on leave in Vancouver in 1960. She was immediately dazzled by the uniformed figure when he came breezing into a restaurant where she was dining with friends: “He was handsome and his uniform was different than any I had ever seen. But he also looked intimidating.” Noting her glances, he engaged her in conversation, and she was charmed by his winning smile and southern accent – that sonorous accent once common to south Alabama but is now to be found only among the elderly in pockets of the South. Six months later they were married. She would become his Annette Benning, settling down this once-restless man. But not entirely. He still volunteered for combat operations and became one of those military advisers that President Kennedy sent over to Vietnam at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
My own relationship with him was, I now know, typical of fathers and sons of my generation (Generation X) within the military milieu. I was imbued with the values of that culture while at the same time I mildly rebelled against it. Our differences were mostly over style rather than substance. Once I was old enough to have my hair cut by anyone other than the base barbers who know only one style, I grew my hair somewhat long, which he hated. A typical kid, I wore blue jeans, loose t-shirts, and ball caps pushed back off my forehead. All of this flew in the face of not only military regulation but of the men of his generation.
He liked Hank Williams (not to be confused with Hank Williams Jr.), the Statler Brothers, and the humor of Bob Hope; I liked Bruce Springsteen, U2, and the humor of Eddie Murphy. Even so, I generally got along well with him because I was good at the things he valued and because he thought I had moxie. His pride in me was expressed in the keeping of newspaper clippings noting some achievement of mine. Though he didn’t attend church himself, it pleased him whenever I did.
His vices were ever near the surface. He was an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, and hot tempered. His approach to disciplining his children was exactly like that of a platoon sergeant: scare you half to death so that you didn’t make the same mistake twice. It was not without effect. But he was generous, possessed of that rare ability to laugh at himself, and surprisingly gentle when the occasion called for it. Indeed, when Lauri and I, who were high school sweethearts, decided to get married, he wrote Lauri a letter telling her:
“You have been nothing but a real joy to us…. If I had to pick a wife for Larry, it would have been you.”
Often stern, he could nonetheless turn on the charm and make any woman feel good about herself. And he loved children, none more than his own grandchildren.
“Dad!” My son Michael, who was about five years old at the time, had just demanded ice cream, and his grandfather, to my shock, had practically sprinted into the kitchen to get it.
“Dad,” I repeated, “you’d never let me get away with that! Don’t let Michael tell you what to do!”
“Well,” he said somewhat sheepishly. “I know I wasn’t much of a father. But I’m determined to be a good grandfather!”
I could only shake my head and chuckle when I imagined how that scenario would have played out in my childhood, but grandparenting had transformed General Patton into a softie.
In retrospect, I judged him harshly and he knew it. Like many boys with their fathers, youth and inexperience had led me to conclude that life was much simpler than it really is. For the boy version of me, his vices were a sign of his weakness, and I hated his alcoholism. It made him brooding and mean, and it meant a fight was sure to follow. But I little understood his story and the pain he wanted to numb.
In recent months, I have found myself often reflecting on my father and my relationship with him. I find that the older I get, the less inclined I am to judge him. No doubt the grace that I extended to him in adulthood – and that I withheld from him in childhood – is in no small part due to the bumps and bruises I have received in my own life. But I also think that parenting your own children gives you a very different perspective on your parents. It’s harder than it looks.
Before my father died, I think he knew he was dying but said nothing to indicate it. Still, as I look back, there were signals in the out-of-character things he did. He suddenly started attending church and he asked to be baptized. He began memorizing scripture. He started watching sermons on television and listening to old gospel songs he knew from his youth. Most telling of all, he tried to repair broken relationships, that with my sister especially. He was, I now realize, seeking grace and forgiveness.
Many of you have strained, difficult, or altogether broken relationships with your fathers. As we celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday, I encourage you to extend to them the grace that you would hope to receive from your own children. To withhold grace, to withhold forgiveness, is cruel to our fellow man and a great offense to our Lord in heaven who has forgiven us. Tell your dad that you love him and accept him. And, in the words of the song I have chosen to accompany this column, don’t be left thinking: “I wish I could have told him in the living years.”
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For this week’s song, I can think of none more appropriate than “The Living Years” by Mike & the Mechanics. If you don’t know the song or story behind it, read the story here and listen to the song here.