My father was a many-faceted man. An aeronautical engineer by trade, he was an artist and a poet at heart. He was well-read in the classics, including many of the Russian writers and could quote Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. His favorite poet was the French vagabond poet Francois Villon, and one of his favorite novels was the Polish writer Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. Not the usual pleasures for an engineer.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my father and missing him. How strange it was, then, when I talked to my youngest child this weekend and he told me he has been thinking about Papa and missing their talks with each other. There is so much more my son wished he knew about his grandfather, some things I can give him a few answers to, but many things I don’t know enough about and there is no one left alive to ask.
My son and daughter-in-law had just watched the film From Here to Eternity, and I suspect that was what triggered my son’s questions about his grandfather’s experiences in the South Pacific during the war. He wanted to know if Papa had seen combat. I told him I didn’t think he had actually seen any combat, but he saw the results of it on the aircraft because he was stationed on bases in the Philippines and New Guinea and worked on the airplanes that flew missions. I’m sure he got to know many pilots who left in those planes and never returned. I looked for pictures of Dad in the war, but though I found many of him in uniform, I could only find a couple of him in the South Pacific, and they were tiny and grainy.
Although I only have those two pictures of him overseas, I have a stack of the love letters he sent to my mother during that time. He had already received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from NYU before the war, was a first lieutenant and had been in the South Pacific for a year already when he sent my mother a letter the day before his birthday. It is poignant because I realized all that was going on in his young life, and yet he felt pretty old at the time.
It is in these letters that I can see the poet in my father. In a letter to my mother from the South Pacific in May of 1944, he wrote, “Love is a strange thing. For love, a man might want to conquer a world, or write a sonnet, or compose a ballad. But those are the few, and the rest of us who can’t do those things have to do something else. All I want is a peaceful and pleasant life with you—a whole lifetime filled with our intermingled happiness. There are so many factors to happiness that it almost becomes a problem in probability. But, in truth, happiness is not to be sought for. It comes with unselfishness, loyalty, and devotedness. I believe we shall be happy because we are not greedy people—we want very little.”
My sister-in-law was lamenting recently that people don’t write letters anymore because of technology. Quick notes sent as emails or texts are the way of the world now. When I read Dad’s old letters, I have to agree with her how sad it is because we will never have the depth of thought saved for generations to come.
This post today is really for my children, especially for Ben who was missing his grandfather this weekend. One last thing I will add for that son as it was a movie that sparked this post to begin with. In one of my father’s letters to my mother, he mentioned a movie he had just seen. Maybe it will be one my son and daughter-in-law will want to rent next, and when they watch it, they will think of Ben’s grandfather watching it in 1944 in some lonely outpost in the South Pacific, sitting with other men who were missing their loved ones.