When Dad and my uncles and aunts sat around a table or in yard chairs on summer days when we were kids, they talked about family and growing up in the “good old days” and Italian food and friends. Memories of the “good old days” usually did not include recollections of World War II, even though the youngest three brothers in a family of five boys and three girls served abroad at the same time. If one of the three youngest brothers did share a war-time story, it was a humorous anecdote.
Sometimes after supper, Dad would sit in front of a shortwave radio in the living room with a pad of paper and a pen in his hand, and transcribe the audible beeps that he heard into dots and dashes on the paper. After a while, Dad would look up and show us his work, and read aloud the code that sounded like musical gibberish to me. What always amazed me was the next part, when he read the message out loud, in actual words. Sometimes he would interrupt his own retelling of the message and say, “I didn’t get that word,” but most of the message was repeated, dot and dash, letter for letter, word for word. My lasting impression wasn’t that the messages were very interesting, but that these rapid tones actually meant something.
Dad served as a radioman on the USS Endicott, a Naval destroyer, and that’s why, two decades later, he could transcribe these messages at home. I know he sailed into a lot of ports around the world, and on one occasion he just missed meeting cousins in Italy when family members he had never seen received word that one of their own was on leave on their soil. His ship pulled anchor before they could reach him, though.
I know, too, that Dad bought a large bunch of bananas back to the ship while on one of his shore leaves, and his compatriots desperately tried to coax a piece of fruit off him. Dad refused. “Get your own bananas,” he told them. How he enjoyed this fresh treat. I also know that he learned how to shoot craps and even explained the game to us kids, though I never quite got the hang of it other than the part when you exclaim, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” as you let the dice fly out of your hand. And I know a few other stories, but not many.
One time, when I was all grown up, married and living across country, my parents flew out to see us and spend time with their young grandchildren. Dad and I were staining the deck in the backyard, and we talked about his Navy days a little bit. I remember saying that he never really told us what it was like; I knew that his ship escorted the fleet for the Invasion of Southern France. He stopped and looked at me, the paint brush in the air, and grew quiet. He was silent for several long moments. Then he said to me, “The sea was red.”
That should have been enough, but I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. The kids were calling me from inside the house. I repeated what I thought he had said on that summer’s morning. “The sea was red?”
The paintbrush that he had dipped in stain moments before still hung in his hand, though none of the stain was dripping onto the wood. He was an expert painter. Dad looked at me and said one word more. “Blood.”
And then he turned his head back to the deck and continued on with his work.
Veterans Day – November 11, 2013