The Measure of a Man
I treasure this photo of my dad, my two brothers, and me when we lived in Fairbanks, Alaska at the Ladd Air Force Base. The year was probably 1954. We stand on a desolate piece of ground covered in snow. We are all dressed in parkas, hoods up, scarves around our necks, gloves and mittens on our hands.
My brothers and I look like Kenny from South Park, bundled up so big that our arms stick out and all you see are our big, wide black eyes. My dad is skinny even in his parka. He is no more than twenty-six or so. We all look happy even though my dad had been drafted and we had been relocated to Ladd Air Force base just as my father’s medical practice was taking hold. Even though family was in St. Louis. I think we were happy 'even though' because my dad was not going to let us be anything less.
My parents struggled mightily to put him through medical school. He came from a Kansas farm family. His small town had taken up a collection to help him with his tuition. It was a wonderful gesture, but it wasn't enough. My mom didn't have a winter coat, I doubt my dad did either. My mom worked in a lab where the radiation cause two miscarriages. My dad worked while he studied. He cleaned tables at one of the rich fraternities; he was a professional mourner at a mortuary. All this to make ends meet that never did seem to meet. They shared a pork chop because there wasn't enough money for two. My brother came along, and I followed soon after. Dad passed his boards and became a doctor, an OB/GYN. He loved babies. He built a fledgling practice in Missouri. My mom worked the front office, took care of the kids, sewed, cooked and kept the books. The future looked bright and secure.
Then the draft notice came.
Everything they worked for was gone in a flash. My dad had to sell his little practice. They drove from Missouri to Alaska with two toddlers in the back of an old station wagon and my mother pregnant with my middle brother. I knew the story of the journey to Alaska, but until recently I didn't fully appreciate how much they lost when Uncle Sam pointed his finger at my dad and said I Want You.
When I look at this picture now, I am stunned that my father can smile. I'm not sure I could have done that if the government had told me to put my life on hold, move to a place that wasn't even a state, live in perpetual dark and light depending on the season. Then again, maybe my dad is smiling because he knew something that would take me a lifetime to figure out. He knew that duty to country is an honor. He knew that the true measure of a man is how he deals with change and adversity. He knew that discipline in the service means discipline outside of it, and he was nothing if not disciplined. But it really boiled down to one thing: he had faith that if he did what a man should do then everything would work out.
When he left the Air Force, we settled us in California next to my maternal grandparents and he started from scratch. Through force of will, patient-by-patient, he built a thriving practice. Three more children were added to our family so we were six in all. When people are amazed at the size of our family, I always say that my dad was a Catholic OB/GYN so that made us advertising. If my dad had not been called to duty, my life would have been much different and so would his. But he did answer the call like so many before and so many after.
The call doesn't always come in the form of a draft notice. Sometimes it's something in the soul or the heart that moves a man to a new space even though he doesn't want to go. I'm sure there was disappointment, but if there was it was expressed to my mother in private. To his children, the lesson he taught us was that everything is possible with faith and determination. The definition of a real man keeps changing, and frankly I'm not terribly impressed with the new ones. My dad was a real man. One foot in front of the other. Do your job well. Protect your family no matter what. Honor your country and do your duty. Have faith. As I age, I realize what an amazing father he was. He put his life on hold for his country but there were so many times he put his dreams on hold for us. My dad has been gone a long time, but if he were here, right now, I would say thank you for being brave enough to change your life so that my life could be safe, warm, and filled with opportunities.
P.S. My dad and mom were partners, but today is Fathers Day and the tribute is for him. Happy Fathers Day to every man who deserves the title, including my incredible husband, brothers, brothers-in-law. You guys are amazing.