On Memorial Day, I Remember Dad

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Memorial Day.

On this day, we honor the untold millions of men and women who served this country during times of war and peace. We pay our respects to the hundreds of thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend this great nation.

Although I never did serve in the Armed Forces, I know from experience that the freedom we enjoy didn't come cheaply. My family history contains many heroes, on both sides of the family. On Memorial Day, I think of them.

On Memorial Day, I think of Dad: Andrew Jackson Bird.

Would dad approve of my gardening exploits? Are heirloom tomatoes lumpy? Dad's backyard gardens were the stuff of LEGEND. The old man was well known for tilling up half the backyard to plant corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. The memories of summertime cookouts with freshly harvested corn grilling on the barbeque and a game of croquet after dinner will never be forgotten.

I can't tell you exactly when the photo to your left was taken. That's dad with my mother, Doris Marie Bird (who would later change her name to Brown -- but that's another story for another day). Given the age of both, I'm guessing this photo is circa mid 1950's, but to be honest, I can't be sure.

Dad served in the war to end all wars -- the big one -- World War II. I'd like to tell you that he served America with pride, but that wouldn't be exactly correct. Dad served with the Canadian Sixth Army. Why did an American citizen like dad serve with the Canadian Sixth Army? It's another long story, but the long and short of it is, dad wanted IN World War II in the worst way. It was his ticket back to England -- where he was born.

Dad was serving in the U.S. Army when England declared war against Nazi Germany in 1938. It would be almost four years before America got involved, which came with the surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. But in 1938 -- dad wanted in the war. So, as the story goes, one day dad simply left the U.S. base he was serving at. He went AWOL -- Absent Without Leave.

In 1938, Dad made his way across the border with Canada and joined the Canadian Army. Since England was in the war, so was the Commonwealth -- and that meant Canada was at war with Nazi Germany. Some 35 years later, thousands of American boys would flee to Canada to escape the draft and service in Vietnam.

But, in 1938, it was a different story. Dad wasn't the only American to cross the border to join the fight against Facism. He might have been the only person to go AWOL, and he took a big risk in doing so. His citizenship in the United States was actually revoked for the actions he took. It would later be restored after the war ended, and dad came home.

England needed men to guard the beaches against possible Nazi invasion. France had already fallen. The Royal Air Force was battling the Luftwaffe for control of the skies over England, and that fight wasn't going so well at first for the Allies. The Nazi's were preparing to invade. So -- off dad went -- with about six thousand other Canadians and Americans to guard the beaches.

While in England, dad would meet Ruby, his first wife. The photo to your right was taken either right after or right before they were married. Dad was still guarding beaches at this point during the campaign, but the threat of invasion waned as the Royal Air Force recovered and won control of the skies.

Dad would later be captured by Nazi forces during the Dieppe Raid in May, 1942. He spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp. The first year of confinement may have been his worst. The Nazi's were winning the war. Allied prisoners were not treated well. When the tide of war finally turned a year later, treatment improved.

As much of a hero as my father was, he was not the best husband nor family man. I put that mildly. My dear mother, if she were still alive, would probably have stronger words than that. And it's true that Dad did wind up leaving her for another woman in 1966, leaving mother with four children to raise on her own. Four very young children I might add (I was just three).

In retrospect, it was probably the worst move he ever made. Dad wound up penniless and very much alone when he entered Doctor's Hospital in Modesto for an operation on his pancreas in 1972. He never recovered. Six months later he was dead. I was nine years old -- probably a year or three younger than this photo of fun in the snow at Twain Harte. With me and dad is my older (MUCH OLDER) brother Andy.

Growing up after my father's death wasn't easy. My mother was extremely bitter. I can't blame her. She would repeat this line many times in the ensuing years: "the best thing your father ever did for this family was die." It's a mean thing to say, no doubt, but there's an element of truth in that. His death allowed mother to tap into his Social Security retirement benefits, guaranteeing a source of income that would help raise four children.

But, on Memorial Day, I don't think much of the bad times. I don't think much of the sad times. I remember the backyard barbeques. I remember his expansive vegetable gardens, and how proud he was when it came to harvest fresh corn and tomatoes. I remember games of Lawn Darts and Croquet.

Most of all, I remember dad.

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