Friday, November 11, 2005

He could have been my hero.

Every time I see images on the news of soldiers in Iraq I think about a faded photograph I have of my father taken somewhere in the Sahara Desert in 1941 during the early years of World War II.

My father was called into service in September 1939 the month the war started. He was part of the North Africa Campaign and fought Rommel’s German Army for almost five years. He came home briefly in 1944 and then went over to France as part of the Normandy Invasion that same year. He went through the whole war without injury of any kind. I often wonder, ‘What if he had died?’ I would have the faded snapshot you see above, my mother would have told me wonderful stories about him and he would have been my hero from that time on. Instead he turned out to be a cruel and abusive father. It has taken me many years to understand and to finally come to terms with that.

Each time I look at this photo I think about the other men pictured here. Most of them smiling; the one in the center playfully pulls the ear of the one next to him. The war would go on four more years after this picture was taken; how many of the others in this small group survived the war? Half of them, less than half?

I wonder about those who died and the families and children they left behind. I also think of those like my father who survived the war. What kind of fathers did they turn out to be? Maybe not all as abusive as my ol’ man but I’m sure some were less than perfect and had less than ideal relationships with their children.

We none of us get to choose our parents and unlike a marriage a relationship with a parent never ends, it is only varying degrees of good or bad. As children we look on our parents as these all-powerful God like beings, only to find as we grow they are human with all the human flaws and weaknesses.

I can forgive my father. Why? Because he didn’t know any better. If that sounds like a cop out and I am making excuses for him, what’s the alternative? That I remain bitter and angry and go on blaming him. My childhood has long gone and the past is never going to get any better no matter how hard I try.

The truth is he didn’t know any better. Before the early 1950s our society made it acceptable for a man to beat his wife and kids. Even the education system did it, they called it corporal punishment but it was abuse legal or not. There was a theory that if a child had some developing character flaw, it had to be beaten out of them. The problem was when the child became an adult they still had the character flaw plus they were bitter and angry because of all the beatings they had taken. Left alone character flaws become their own punishment and most intelligent persons will correct them on their own.

My father never talked about his childhood but I know he was a rebellious kid. His parents made him join the British Army at the age of nineteen because they could do nothing with him. I sure he took some terrible beatings as a child and he later continued the cycle of violence. My mother also suffered physical abuse at the hands of my father, but I was able to break this cycle of wife beating partly because my mother always told me what a cowardly act it was for a man to hit a woman. Also effecting my own behavior the changing social awareness and the fact that I had two daughters. I feel I may have been less tolerant had I had a son.

I tried to make peace with my father while he was alive but he could not see that anything he had done was wrong, much less ask forgiveness from me. Plus his dislike, even hatred for me remained. It was only after his death in 1996 I could finally accept the way he was and offer forgiveness for my sake so I can move on.

What if he had died in WWII would my life have turned out different or would I still be mourning the loss of my hero? A man far greater than he could have ever been in real life. I have seen the sons of highly successful fathers struggle to live up to an image they can never achieve. My ol’ man made it easy for me to be better than he was. His heavy drinking turned me off drinking to excess so I’ve never had a problem with alcohol. And I do recognize his contribution during WWII. He had no choice; he was drafted. But because he did what he did, I would never have to. For that much he is my hero.