In life we shared a name, he was senior and I was junior, but the commonality ended there.
As a born storyteller, he would freely incorporate fiction, so you were never quite sure where the truth began and the story was sprinkled in. There were also some things he guarded with his silence. When he passed away at the age of forty-seven, he took many of those guarded secrets with him.
One of his biggest mysteries was his uniform which I found in a metal closet in the basement after he passed away. From the documents I sorted, I found he had served in the United States Army during the Korean War. Stationed in Pusan, he only spoke of having a desk job while he was there. Hanging in that metal closet was a complete army uniform, an OG-107 with an M-1943 field jacket hanging over the combat utility uniform. What I found interesting were the two Purple Hearts affixed to the right pocket on the OG-107.
After removing the uniform from the metal closet, I called his sister Anne.
“Oh Glen, it is so good to hear from you.” She was almost in tears when I identified myself. “Do you need a hand with his things?”
“Not really, but I do want to know about this uniform I found in a metal closet in the basement.” There was a very long pause.
“Uniform?” She whispered.
“Yes, do you know anything about it?” I asked.
“I might.” She sighed, “He was in the war you know.”
“Yes, I know, but he never told me much about what he did there.” I ran my hand over the right pocket where the Purple Hearts were pinned.
“He didn’t talk much about it when he came home.” She explained, “Glen was really quiet when he came home in 1954. I was still in high school.”
“Yes, that’s one of the few things he told me.” I smiled.
“His service was wonderful. So many people showed up to pay him their respects.” She was trying to change the subject which told me there was something hidden which I wasn’t supposed to know. This wasn’t unusual with our family as it seemed there was some prearranged agreement to protect me from things that would harm me if I were to find out about them. It seemed I had found yet another hazardous truth.
“Yes, yes it was.” I nodded.
“Why don’t you come over for dinner on Sunday? The family would like to see you. I know how hard his passing was for you.” She said in the kindest voice I had ever heard. It would have been better if I had known he was sick, but then that was part of the family code.
“I wish I could. I am taking a flight back to Korea.” I shook my head.
“Korea? Oh yes, you are stationed there just like he was.” She laughed.
“Only when he was in Korea, there was a war.” I replied with a slight chuckle.
“True, true.” She said quickly.
“My bereavement leave is up in three days.” I explained, “I will have the lawyer handle the details from here. He has your phone number, Aunt Anne.”
“Yes, Ben will be happy to help.” She sounded delighted.
“We have come here to honor the memory of Glen Gavin Deermott. In his short life, Mr. Deermott was able to achieve an extraordinary amount of accomplishments that included both in the military service as well as academic accolades at the university. All that knew him should be very proud of his life accomplishments.” Reverend Patrick O’Rourke proclaimed to the congregation.
There were sniffles and sobs, but I sat there in my dress uniform dry-eyed and somber.
That’s what I was supposed to be after my mother passed away when I was just three years old.
He did not want anyone to talk about what had happened.
He did not want me to know she had overdosed on her prescription pills with a bottle of whiskey. These things were not talked about back then. They were taboo.
I was sixteen when one of my aunts slipped up in a conversation, “Just like when Julie passed away. Glen was angry.”
Later, I would find out about her depression and her mental instability.
It seemed there were so many things that were taboo.
“Where’s your mother, Glen?” Miss Kendricks asked me after my first day at Kindergarten.
“I don’t have one.” I replied. It was a line I had rehearsed with my father before coming to my first day at school.
“I am so sorry.” She put her hand to her reddening cheek.
I watched the other kids take their mother’s hands as they went off to their typical suburban homes. I knew that our apartment was three blocks away and Aunt Anne would let me in as her and Uncle Herb lived in the same apartment complex with their three, soon to be four, kids, my cousins. Dad had just graduated valedictorian from the university after utilizing the GI Bill after being discharged from the army. He had become a certified public accountant which I could not say at the time.
Norm would come over which meant I would be spending the night with my cousins, uncle and aunt while they went out bowling and drinking beer. Norm was one of my dad’s war buddies who was putting on weight while keeping his hair cut short like he did when he was in the army. Dad had shown me pictures of him when they were still in Korea. The two of them were on the base throwing a football or cutting up in some other way. Norm Walsh had passed away from a similar heart condition three years ago.
“Your father is a hero.” He told me as he guzzled another bottle of beer while dad was off to the restroom. We were eating dinner at the V.F.W. in honor of my high school graduation. “He shoudda got a bronze star.”
“Why?” I asked as I used a toothpick.
“On account he saved us from an ambush.” Norm closed his eyes, “Some of the guys got blasted.”
“Yeah, killed.” He appeared as if he was on the verge of tears.
Dad returned and the conversation ended there.
Desk job? Ambush?
“Your father was a prince among men.” Broderick Nash told me at the funeral reception. Mr. Nash had been his last boss. He was president of a small company that sold lighting products. He had grown up in Brooklyn and was a die-hard Yankee fan. His accent was right from Flatbush, but he treated the people that worked for him right. “I’m gonna miss Old Glen. Honest as the day is long.”
I wish he had been honest. I did not want to be protected, but it was all he had to give me and he wanted to make sure the world did not treat me poorly like he had when he was a kid. His father, Oswald, had served in World War I and had been a truck driver making local deliveries during the Depression. He had lived a hard austere life and expected his sons and daughters to do the same. He had been blessed with six boys and five girls crammed into a three bedroom apartment in upstate New York. My dad told me when he returned from Korea, he told his dad he had enrolled at the university. Oswald leveled my dad with a single punch.
“We McDermotts do not go to college.” He fumed, “We go to work.”
Pulling himself to an upright position, he shook himself off and walked out the door. It would be the last words they would ever speak to each other.
I put the old uniform on the backseat of my car and drove to my hotel room downtown.
My imagination began to play with me as I imagined my father charging the enemy in the face of furious crossfire.
Two Purple Hearts still dangled from his right pocket.
“People were getting those Purple Heart things for cutting their fingers on the beer that was rationed to us.” He once remarked when we were at the V.F.W., this time to celebrate my enlistment into the service. Norm was there and he began to laugh until his round face turned purple.
“I got me one for cutting my hand on a can opener.” Norm managed to say.
Even as they laughed about it, their mirth seemed a bit misplaced. I thought about all the guys who had come home from Vietnam in flag draped coffins. It just didn’t seem that funny to me, but I made sure I laughed along with them so they wouldn’t suspect what I was honestly thinking.
“Glen, you got to know that when he came back he was a different man.” Aunt Anne told me when I questioned her at one of our family gatherings. My cousins were now gangly young men just like I had become.
“Why won’t he tell me the truth?” I asked.
Uncle Herb interjected, “He will in his time.”
Uncle Herb with his bald head and big old mustache on his face, had not served his country as my father had and I resented him butting in on our conversation.
“Honey.” Aunt Anne put her hand on my shoulder, “He wanted to make sure you didn’t get hurt by the truth.”
“That’s just it, how can I get hurt by the truth.” I shook my head, “Dr. King said the truth will set us free.”
“He was speaking about a different truth.” Uncle Herb added.
“How do you know?” I shot back.
“Is Nick in?” I asked as I walked into the V.F.W. with dad’s uniform on a hanger.
“In the back.” The bartender answered by pointing to the door.
I opened the door slowly and there was Nick Fontane sitting hunched over his ledger.
“Glen! Glen, so good to see you.” He waved me into his closet of an office.
“Hey, I have something I want to ask you.” I sat in the only empty chair.
“Always.” He pinched my cheek with his hand.
“I have dad’s old uniform.” I held it up.
“Oh my God…I never thought he’d still have this.” He ran his hands over the uniform.
“Your father was not a very happy soldier when he came home.” Nick sighed. “Korea was a mess and then his wife, your mother offs herself.”
“I know all that, Nick. What did he do to get these?” I pointed to the Purple Hearts.
“He never told you?” Nick rubbed his chin with his hand.
“Dad never said a word about the war other than a few general remarks.” I shrugged.
“Holy Jesus.” He sounded like a tire that had suddenly sprung a leak. “He got himself all shot up during an ambush.”
Nick Fontane was one of the men that had served with him in Korea. Nick was a corpsman who had carried his share of dead and wounded soldiers back from the front.
“What do you mean, shot up?” I was startled at the revelation.
“Dark night out there on the front lines. Some of the forces were able to push the North Koreans back to some river. But then came the counterattack. Them bums like to fight at night. They were harder to see in their uniforms. Your father was a squad leader. This gun placement opened fire the minute they crossed the line. Four of his men went down. He threw a grenade just as he got four bullets in his chest. He was one lucky son-of-a-bitch. I came and got him. I thought he was dead for sure, but the next day I went to his tent and spoke to him. He would recover and go back again. He got blasted, but survived.”
“Holy…” I muttered.
“I am shocked he never told you any of this.” Nick scratched his head.
“Not a word.” I could feel tears burning at the corner of my eyes. “He told me he lost his three fingers cutting meat at a butcher shop before the war. Saved him from frontline combat.”
“Naw, that ain’t right.” Nick shook his head slowly.
“Were any of his stories true?” I asked.
“Your father was as honest as the day is long.” Nick sighed.
“Except to me.” I stood up, yanking the uniform as I did.
“You gotta forgive him. He did what he thought was best for you.” Nick patted me on the back.
“I wish I could feel like that…but I don’t” I wiped the tears with the back of my hand.
“One day, one day, you will and you will know he did it for you.”
I sat by his grave as the sunlight was sucked from the sky leaving the world in darkness and shadow.
“Dad, I didn’t need your protection. I needed the truth and you never gave me that. Never.” I sobbed. The mound of dirt was still grassless in the place he would lay in eternal peace. They still had not affixed the headstone I had ordered, but I knew who I was speaking to. “What you told me about mom…all of it was no more than some story you made up to protect me.”
With one more day left, I went down to the small museum in town where they had an exhibit of local memorabilia and paraphernalia. Most of the museum smelled of mold and must, but there were exhibits from the past where folks could come and see what life had been like a few decades ago.
“Can I help you, young man?” Asked one of the curators. “I’m Mr. Jennings.”
I opened the bag where I had put his uniform. “I was hoping you’d have a place for this.”
He put his hands on the uniform, “Korea?”
“Yes, it would be my pleasure to display this.” He smiled, his eyes disappeared from behind his thick glasses.
“I have all the information printed here.” I handed him the index card.
“His name was Glen McDermott?” He replied.
“Yes, he was my father.” I felt my throat close up a bit.
“Two Purple Hearts?” He touched one of them with his crooked finger.
“Yes, wounded twice in combat.” I confirmed.
“Are you sure about that?” Mr. Jennings asked earnestly.
“I can get his DD form 214 if you’d like.” I felt the words catch in my throat again.
“No, no, not necessary. I will take your word for it.” He nodded. “Are you sure we can have this?”
“The uniform, of course. He passed away a few days ago. I was cleaning out his belongings when I came across this.” I wiped a tear from my eye.
“We certainly do appreciate you bringing this to us.” He smiled, “We will have it displayed in a place of honor.”
“I appreciate that.” I nodded.
“Come see it when we have it ready.” He hung the hanger on a wire behind the counter.
“I’m afraid I’ll be leaving for Korea tomorrow.” I shook my head.
“Korea? Are you going to where he served?”
“No, afraid not.” I walked out of there knowing that I had done the right thing. I was letting the world know that my father Glen McDermott was a true war hero, no matter what anyone else would say about it.