Strength of Our Fathers

November 20, 2009
By , Liverpool, NY
"Hi Papa!" I called as I wrapped my arms around my smiling grandfather. Although sixty years old, he looked as if he was ten years younger,
sleek in his black leather jacket pulled over a striped button down shirt. He kicked off his sneakers to reveal gray socks peeking out
from the hem of his faded jeans. My grandmother, Nana, was a good match for him. She was into fashion and shopping, and wore that day a
cheerful yellow shirt- the color of her hair- and jeans. She was also sixty, but the age hid well on her sweet face.
My grandparents had made the ten minute trip to our house for an evening of pizza, chicken wings, and good times. As I sat in a
kitchen chair, legs crossed and fingers tracing the stitches down my jeans, I opened my eager ears wide and let the flow of words fill them.
For as far back as I can remember, I've loved the past. History was my thing, food for my ever hungry mind. Personal histories,
memories, were a feast for me. I greedily chewed on the conversation my dad and his father were immersed in, standing side by side in the
bright kitchen, occasionally pausing to take a bite of pizza from their greasy plates or a swig of beer from their cans.
Something about the way my papa told a story took my breath away, had me floating between the sands of time and left my mind
in a frenzy. But something particular caught me off guard. My father had mentioned something about the war and related it to Vietnam.
"Of course you would know, you were there," he acknowledged with a wave of his hand. Papa's face changed. For a split second he gazed
unfocused off into the distance, and I knew he had travelled back in time. I drew my knees up to my chest and followed him.
He resumed talking in a second, an unnoticeable pause to most perhaps, but it had me whirling back to a time so preceding ours. In
front of my eyes, I watched Papa's face grow clear, less defined, free from the wrinkles and bags he wore as marks of his wisdom. He was
handsome, I knew, when he was young. I had seen a picture of him in uniform. His face was bright and clean, and even through the colorless photo,
I swear I could see the twinkle in his clear blue eyes that so often sparkles today. In that picture he stared back serenely, a quiet young soldier.
So young, I thought. Only a bit older than my brother.
Just that night he had spoken of his childhood house. He had gotten that gleam in his eyes only happy memories can bring.
"The big porch is still there. And the trees out front," he said contently. The young soldier from the picture sprang to life as he marched down
the steps of the big porch, past the towering trees, and down the road. He was leaving the life he had loved so dearly. He had enlisted in the
army, proud to serve his country.
Before me stood Papa, the handsome face of his youth hidden under the mask of age, and wondered how he had felt. Was he proud,
proud of the sacrifice he would make for his beloved home land? Or was he lustful, looking for the kind of adventure only war could bring. My
eyes flickered to Nana, standing regally at his side. Was she at his side then? Was she okay with her boyfriend's decision to go to a far away
place to fight this war in a different world? Did she tell him she'd wait for him? Did he believe her? I saw them now, and when they looked at
each other, their faces shone with the tender affection built strong through the years. Did they feel strong then?
The kitchen erupted with laughter. Papa was always making people laugh. His wide smile was too much to resist; when he smiled at
you, you'd feel the corners of your mouth tug up on their own accord. Did he make his fellow soldiers laugh? Was his smile their comfort in
times of fear and miserableness? Did they become attached to such a glowing soul; did they become friends? Yes, they must have.
Papa's eyes flickered around the laughing room, resting briefly in mine. He had caught me staring off into his memories, he had
watched my hands wring each other over and over again. He was always noticing things, his sharp bright mind always active within him. He
must have needed these skills on the battlefield. He seemed to feel everything and everyone around him. Did he warn his friends of the
enemy lurking just behind? Did he narrowly escape death with his quick reflexes? Did he feel it when someone got shot? I looked at his hard,
rigid face. He looked tough on the outside, but the eyes- the window to the soul- there was a softness there. Did he learn to be brave in the
war? Did he guard the pain he felt inside? Did one of his friends get shot? Did any die? They must have. Did he cry?
He mentioned science, and my brain had conjured a vivid image of him amidst a rambling jungle. His big, carved hand rested on
the counter top. Those hands had held a gun- a gun that killed people. Did he kill someone? How did he feel when he did? I pulled my legs closer to
my chest and buried my face into them, sucking the sweet smell of laundry detergent and soap into my nostrils. How did he smell when he was
there? I new he answer to that one. Awful. I stared out the window, out into the black night. I imagined him so small in the big world, lying
under the never ending sky in the dark. I imagined the rain pounding on his helmet, like swords clanking together, a whisper of the warriors that
came before him. Was he lonely out there?
I looked again at his face, all lit up from his smile. I thought of his happy moments. My mind took me back in my own memories.
The warm spring breeze was free over the open water, and I was too. I giggled and shrieked as the bright blue river water sprayed my cheeks
and the wind whipped my hair out of my face. From my seat in the back of the boat, I could see the back of Papa,s head, his hands resting
casually on the steering wheel. He wasn't smiling now, I realized. But he was content. He possesses an inner peace out on the water. For some
reason, whenever we were on a boat ride, he was young again. I'd watch the years fade away as he hit the waves with perfect precision, a
faint smile flickering over his face when we screamed with joy.
He is that young serene soldier from the picture, calm and strong, an inner strength fused with confidence. But Vietnam is his past
now, not his present. Emotional wounds fade, just as you wouldn't be able to tell without looking at the scar that he was shot in the leg. Still,
there are traces of the past in everyone, and I wonder if he ever thinks, really thinks about Vietnam. I think he found a peace beyond the pain.
He must have came home as quietly as he left, a stronger, more somber person. His parents would be joyful, his girlfriend ecstatic.
I pictured him walking quietly back up the steps of the big porch, silent and changed. I see his girlfriend flinging herself into his arms tearful,
his mother sobbing into his shoulder, his father's eyes watering with pride as he embraces his son. I wonder if he was torn apart inside. I think he was.
But he recovered. Maybe when he's out on the boat he remembers the carefree days of his youth, before he saw what he saw and did what
he did. Sometimes I see him staring solemnly out into the distance, lost in memories only he knows.
A lifetime of pains have come his way, but he makes an effort everyday to make people smile. He lives his life above the pain and
the memories, and allows himself to leave the past at rest. He inspires me beyond words to allow myself to overcome the small hurts and
pains that sting me everyday. When I look into the face of my fears, I am my grandfather, facing the enemy with unfailing strength. And I will overcome.

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