During World War II, Harold Jellicoe “Coe” Percival served his country in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Last month, he died at the age of 99 in a nursing home, a single man and, as his obituary said, no close family to attend his funeral. His obituary was picked up by Twitter, as well as his town’s local paper, and efforts to gather people together to celebrate his legacy quickly went viral. On Veterans Day, November 11, 2013, at Lytham Park Crematorium, over 300 people–mostly service men and women–showed up to pay their respects to Harold.
Veterans Day was always an interesting day in my family, given my father was a war veteran but never talked about it. For that reason, I’d say we weren’t a military family despite my father, his brother, my maternal grandfather and maternal grandmother each having served their respective countries. But it was never expected of anyone in my family to join the forces after that. In fact, with mention of a draft during the first Iraq war, my father was terrified that my teenage brother would suffer my father’s fate, and get selected. This fear — this powerful desire to avoid war — didn’t come from a place of cowardice or a lack of patriotism; it came from a place of having been there, having experienced it, and having known what going to war truly meant.
My grandfather was famous for throwing parties. He made sure there were never enough chairs so people had no choice but to mingle, he made sure no one’s glass ever emptied, and by the end of the evening, he was often found playing the piano while everyone sang along. He needed no reason to throw one, or rather, he always found one: he once had friends gather to celebrate an odometer milestone in his Rolls Royce (for which he’d saved up to buy since he was a young boy). He drove up and down the driveway of my grandparent’s bungalow until 99,999 rolled over to 100,000. Champagne corks popped, celebratory drinks were poured, and numbers were celebrated as they’d never been before.
During World War II, my grandfather was required to witness the execution of British soldiers who had gone AWOL, having been caught trying to escape the ravages of war. As a medical doctor, he was needed to confirm their deaths. My mother once mentioned that her father never spoke of war either, only to briefly reveal once that it was hard enough to watch anyone die, let alone your own countrymen. I always admired that with a history like that, my grandfather chose to make everything in his life from then on a party–that life itself was good enough reason to celebrate.
I don’t really know my father’s story. He joined the seminary after high school to become a priest but left three days later (sorry Jesus). My mom jokes that it’s because they didn’t have cable so he couldn’t watch baseball, but she might only be half (or not at all?) joking. He was drafted out of university and sent to Korea, his brother having already been sent to Vietnam. I know he fell in love with my mother, who was visiting from England, during his leave in San Francisco. I know he took a picture of her back to Korea with him and commissioned an artist there to paint it. Not understanding her round, violet blue eyes, I know the artist ended up painting what looked like a Korean version of my mother. I know that my father still hates the smell of kimchi due to the association, and I know that he used to tell my mother that what was reported back in the States about Korea was downplayed because, in the late 1960s, Korea wasn’t supposed to be a “war” (it was just a “conflict”). I know that war changed my father, and it would you too if you saw your friends die. I know enough to know that I probably wouldn’t talk about it much either.
This Veterans Day, my father said as much as he’s ever said about his time in the army. The transition from humor to poignancy is a hallmark of my father’s writing and I found it perfectly captured the conflict often felt on Veterans Day, when you want to express debt and gratitude for those who have served, but also pray that we as humans can someday find a better way to resolve our conflicts.
“With Veterans Day just having passed I have to recount a few funny tales from my tour.
Story of the army doctor when a new recruit was being given the physical upon induction he asked him to read the letters on the wall. Wondering if poor eyesight might make a difference the recruit said ‘what letters?’ to which the doctor replied – ‘good, you passed the hearing test’. In my case, not sure my family would agree that I could pass a hearing test now. Unfortunately the army contributed to that.
We had a guy in our battalion in Korea who had won a purple heart on a tour of duty in Vietnam and when discussing it said it proved he was ‘smart enough to think of a plan, dumb enough to try it and lucky enough to survive it’.
We had a drill sergeant at Ft Polk who trained us well and did a pretty good job with a group of drafted college kids who knew everything. The old adage of no atheists in foxholes was his favorite but we quickly learned our own – ‘Don’t ever be first, don’t ever be last and never volunteer for anything’. He taught us Friendly fire – isn’t! If the enemy is in range so are you. His true motto was the more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war. Boy did he make us sweat. Most of us got home safe but sadly not all. I hate war, I hated firing a weapon at people I didn’t know and to make matters worse it was in their own country.
Politicians need to stop teaching us geography through war zones. I salute all veterans; but my greatest hope is that we drastically reduce the number who join our ranks. The writer of ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ never encountered an automatic weapon.”