My father was a veteran of both WWII and Korea. He did not speak often about those wars, but when he did, he told stories that became part of the fabric of my life. Those stories, and the way he told them… his life, and the way he lived it… showed me that every life has joy and sorrow… every life has roads to be traveled and worlds to be explored. But we choose what we learn from our experiences, and perhaps most important of all, we choose what we teach.
Today’s Author Note, comprised of excerpts adapted from A Daughter’s Gift, contain some of his stories. It is dedicated to him, Richard Joseph Barron, on Remembrance Day 2013.
World War II
…My father was shipwrecked in the North Atlantic when his ship was torpedoed and he spent nine hours clinging to the sides of the survival raft, his legs freezing in the icy water as he talked continuously to the only other person to reach the raft with him –- a shipmate who had died shortly after they’d entered the water. He said he couldn’t let himself think about the death of his friend and the only way not to think about it was to talk to him as if he was still alive. So he talked and drank the rum that was part of the emergency supplies, and he survived. He didn’t focus on the pain of those hours in the telling of his story; nor did he try to protect me by hiding it. In fact, he often joked about the antifreeze, as he called the rum. But the terror of the seas was one of the horrors that revisited him in the late stages of his life.
He was part of the cleanup crew for Hiroshima, one of the many young men who wore masks and gloves to enter an area of devastation and destruction –– an area filled with invisible and unknown dangers. He told me about the camera he carried with him that day, the roll of film that was completely blank despite the fact that he’d taken a number of photos, and the ultimate confiscation of that film and the mementoes he’d collected. He believed the radiation had erased the images on the film, the same images that were forever etched on his heart and soul.
…My mother says my father could not bear to hear a child cry, that he could handle almost anything except a child’s tears and pain. This sometimes made things difficult when my two brothers and I were young, but my mother understood that his reaction was rooted in his war-ridden past where he’d heard screams of pain, fear and despair from too many emaciated, starving, suffering and dying children. And she did what she could to help him move beyond the nightmares of his past.
When my father spoke to me of the children of Korea, he talked about the little boy he and some other members of his troop had rescued and hidden in their camp. The small boy’s home had been destroyed and his only remaining family, his two sisters, were missing. They’d found the boy alone and crying and brought him to their camp where he would sleep in the foot of my dad’s sleeping bag. They made sure he was well-fed, well-clothed and well-cared for. The plan was to find his family or find a way to bring the child back to Canada. It took some time and more than a little effort, but they eventually found his sisters and reunited the family. That little boy stayed in my father’s heart.
He told me other things about Korea –– of days and nights spent building bridges and blowing them up, of using chemicals to stay awake for seventy-two or 100 hours because even a moment’s rest would have meant death. He talked of sleeping under the snow –- of how he used the snow as his only blanket while breathing through a snorkel that broke the surface and provided an air path, of how his main concern was the enemy finding them during the night and filling the holes with snow. He told me about the painstaking and intense task of clearing mine fields, about how mines were tricky and sometimes they were placed on top of one another so the removal of the top mine would activate the bottom. His eyes filled with pain, he told me about the day he watched a man, who refused to listen to his cautions, lift a deactivated mine out of a field and be blown apart by the one that lay beneath.
What is perhaps most amazing in all of this is that there was no hatred or animosity in his stories and so I did not think to hate the people who’d been labeled enemies. He did not even seem to judge them, so I never thought to either.
Thank you Dad, for your courage and your wisdom, and the lessons. We remember.