Among the most shameful aspects of my life is my failure to insist that my father tell me all about his wartime years.
He was an 18-year old freshman at New York University who dropped out the day after Pearl Harbor to join the Army Air Corps.
For the rest of his life, he almost never talked about it.
“What was it like?” I’d ask him, knowing in advance his response.
“Who can remember?” he’d say. “It was so long ago.”
Once, not long before his death in 1989, he said the war seemed to have happened “in some other lifetime. And then sometimes it seems like it was yesterday.”
Once in a while, he might offer a wry joke. If he spotted John F. Kennedy’s face somewhere, my father would get a twinkle in his eye and proudly declare, “You know, he and I served in the war together.”
The joke was that Kennedy was out there in the South Pacific while my father was flying combat missions over Eastern Europe.
But my father was the most modest man I’ve ever known, and getting him to talk seriously about his war years was difficult. I’ve tried getting his records from the Air Force, but they’ve informed me there was a fire some years back that destroyed much of their wartime files.
So I reach for whatever little slivers of my father’s war experiences that I can find, and try to imagine the sense of patriotism that prompted him to sign up, and the courage it took to get him through that ordeal with his nerves, as well as his body, intact.
My wife Suzy knows this. So she surprised me about a year ago, not long after we’d gone to Washington to visit the overpowering World War II memorial there, with a gift that reduced me to tears.
It was a framed placard marked, “World War II Honoree: Lionel Olesker. Branch of Service: U.S. Army Air Forces. Hometown: Atlantic City, N.J. Honored by: Michael Olesker, Son.”
Just a bunch of words on a page, I know. But they offered a validation of his service – the service that he was so reluctant, in his modesty, to talk about very much. And in putting my name next to my father’s, my wife understood she was making it plain that a son had not forgotten what his dad had done.
Several years ago, attending the funeral of a younger cousin in Atlantic City, some of us dwelled at the cemetery for a few minutes after the burial. It was a raw, snowy afternoon. There were relatives there from my father’s generation whom I hadn’t seen in some years.
“You know,” one of them said, “your father was a hero.”
Some of the others nodded their heads.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
He kept it to himself. He kept his whole war to himself, the way so many combat veterans do. That’s why that little gift from my wife means so much to me.
Michael Olesker is a Jmore columnist. A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Above image: Framed placard marked, “World War II Honoree: Lionel Olesker. Branch of Service: U.S. Army Air Forces. Hometown: Atlantic City, N.J. Honored by: Michael Olesker, Son.” (Courtesy Michael Olesker)
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