My dad was a World War II veteran. He joined the Army soon after Pearl Harbor and was assigned to the 4th (Ivy) Division, 22nd Infantry Battalion as a combat infantryman. His unit landed at Normandy, fought across France and Belgium, and into Germany. During that time, he earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, among other recognitions.
After V-E Day, he was transferred home and given leave before being resupplied to head to the Pacific to join the probable invasion of Japan. On Aug. 14, 1945, he was with family celebrating his 27th birthday when word passed that the Japanese were in the process of surrender. We never came close to matching that birthday present.
It was clear that the war and his experiences had profoundly impacted his life and the way he lived it, whether for better or worse. He told the funny stories, the crazy stuff but almost never the dark side, except occasionally, very late in the evening after one more gin than usual. And then only after Mom had died and the two of us were alone.
Around his 80th birthday in 1998, he began to get around less and became restricted more and more to his home. About this time, the political wars in Washington were raging over the building of the World War II Memorial. When stories about the disagreements would air on the TV news, he often became incensed. It would invariably end with some variant of, "Get the damn thing built - there's 1,000 of us dying every day."
By the time it was completed, he was no longer able to travel and never got there himself. But at least he knew it was there, and he took a certain degree of satisfaction - clearly tinged with anger over the delay - with the fact that so many men that he knew had finally been honored.
He died in February 2006 and was cremated in Florida for return to northern New York. The bulk of his ashes were buried beside my mother's grave in Riverside Cemetery, Gouverneur. But not all. Some are nurturing a tree at the family summer home at Sylvia Lake. Some are spread at the hunting camp near Cranberry Lake where we spent every fall weekend. Some - and he would have absolutely loved this - were placed in a 10-gauge blank cannon shell and fired out over the lake as a final salute to the neighbors. And I set about a cupful aside for another destination.
In early November 2006, I was near Washington for some meetings. Early on an absolutely cloudless, spectacular Sunday morning, I drove in to Washington to locate the WWII Memorial. I was all alone trying to contemplate my next move with not even a security guard in sight. As I moved around the memorial, it became clear. Among the other features, there are two very powerful recirculating fountains - one commemorating the European Theater of Operations and one for the Pacific. After looking around to make sure I was still alone, and with a few moments of recollection and remembrance, the ashes were poured into the European Theater fountain. Those ashes had been pulverized so fine that they can clean that fountain monthly for the next hundred years and some will still remain.
Right after it was done, I happened to look up into this blue, cloudless sky. There was not a sparrow or a starling or a pigeon to be seen, but a lone eagle flew overhead. My practical side knows he was just on his way to the Tidal Basin to find a dead fish for breakfast, but that did not matter in that moment. All I could do was lose sight of him in the blur over my eyes and think, "Thanks, Dad."
Jeff Dickson lives in Saranac Lake.