December 1st, 2011

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A unique, once in a century, palindromic Veterans’ Day, 11/11/11, makes me think about my father, and about honor, and right-and-wrong.  

My father was a member of what Tom Brokaw has accurately called “the greatest generation.” Like practically everyone else in the country, he downed tools and enlisted in the Navy immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because he was an excellent swimmer, he was accepted onto the underwater demolition team where he had an eardrum blown out in an accident during training. As a result he spent most of the war behind a desk, which is probably what allowed me to be born.

After the war, my father went to work first for the State Department, and later the Foreign Service. It was during one of our first overseas postings that he bought a Boxer from the police department in the little German town of Bad Godesberg.

Egon was an incorrigible brawler, which was why the police were getting rid of him, a magnificently trained, muscular, one-eyed, torn-eared, battle-scarred veteran of countless fights. Hence the one eye and the torn ear. He worshipped my father, slept on my bed, intimidated the hell out of adults who got too close to his children, and thrived on roughhousing.

When we returned to the states my father and Egon and I would go for long walks along the canal in Washington, DC on the weekends. Egon and I were the same age, about five or six, and I remember my terror when my father, on two or three different occasions, sailed in to take on what in those days were called hoodlums, young toughs who were misbehaving in a variety of ways. They were doing things that were clearly wrong, if not illegal, and it never occurred to my father not to stop them.

When I was just a little older, eight or nine, I was allowed to go by myself, but with Egon, to Rock Creek Park, and on one these jaunts a man approached me. I was a child, I knew nothing of pederasty, but I knew something was wrong, and when he grabbed me, I yelled. Egon had been off in the bushes keeping the world safe from squirrels, but when he heard me he came roaring out, ears pinned, his one eye filled with rage and murder and mayhem, and he put the man up a tree. In fact, he made an impressive effort to tear the tree down to get at that man.

All these memories went through my mind this Veterans Day morning as I watched the news about the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. I listened to the reports about the assistant coach, a powerfully built young man, who had caught Jerry Sandusky raping a ten-year old boy in the shower, and simply reported the incident to Joe Paterno. I found myself thinking about my father and what he would have done if he had stumbled onto that scene. I know his reaction would have been very similar to a one-eyed, lop-eared Boxer’s.

I’m not naïve enough to believe the world is better or worse than it was fifty and sixty years ago, but I wonder if something hasn’t been lost.

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