My Dad, His Hat, and His Brethren
Originally published November 12, 2018 in The New York Daily News
Once a year or so, my dad asks me to wash his hat for him. He's concerned that if he puts it through the washing machine, the colorful flash of ribbons might run. So I do the best I can with some gentle dish soap and a toothbrush, scrubbing the yellowed canvas, rinsing the suds, then leaving it out to dry in the sun.
Over time, this hat has become a reminder to me of a way of life I've never known, a selfless sacrifice I've never given and truly can't imagine.
My dad's story is not unlike that of others who grew up in his time. Drafted at 18, he joined six of his older brothers to serve in World War II, five in the Army, my dad and my Uncle Roland in the Navy. What an extraordinary blessing that all seven brothers made it safely back to their home in Fall River, Mass.
What I believe is unusual about my dad's story, though, and the reason I think so many people stop in their tracks when they see his hat, is that during his 31-year career in the Navy he served in three wars. Three!
Recently, sitting with him in his kitchen where he's still going strong at 93, he shared some memories.
As a junior in high school, he heard the Navy Band perform at a nearby park in Fall River, and that band became his goal. When he was drafted, he auditioned with his clarinet for The Navy School of Music and spent a year in Washington, studying there after boot camp.
His first tour of duty was on the carrier, USS Antietam, during World War II in the middle of the Pacific. Because there was not much demand for his clarinet or the band, what with the Japanese planes firing overhead, he was assigned as an acting corpsman transferring injured men to sick bay. Later, he became a gunner's mate and helped load the 40-mm anti-aircraft guns.
During the Korean War, he served on the battleship USS Iowa, north of the 38th Parallel, where they closed railroad tunnels to cut off supplies in Wonsan Harbor and took aim at enemy warehouses and observation posts. Again, there was not much opportunity for the band.
The band did get the chance to perform when he served on the carrier, USS Oriskany, during the Vietnam War. A commodore ordered them to play a concert in a beautiful park despite what my dad had heard about the enemy lobbing grenades all over Saigon. Bandleader by this time, my dad had just begun to lead his men in "Stars & Stripes" when someone whacked him on the shoulder with a baton. The Marine major in charge said you'd better get that band back on the ship on the double. They did.
I'm old enough to remember that last war he served in, a time when political feelings bitterly divided families and friends, when our servicemen and women were not always respected. The atmosphere today is not unlike it was then — with one exception for which I am most grateful. Our military men and women are honored and revered.
Although I'll never walk in my father's shoes or wear his hat, once in a while I do get the chance to clean it. And now that I think about it, I guess we need not have worried about putting the hat in the washer. There's just no way that these colors are going to run.
Photo by Anna Ogiienko