I was a bit of a punk when I was in seventh grade. (Yes, I am aware of the redundancies in that statement.) When I look at that time in my life through the lens of my pop psychology expertise, I realize my punkiness may have been in response to my older sister. Her abundance of shoulder padded shirts and stirruped stretch pants made her look like an extra from a John Hughes movie. She could have had a leading role on the days she wore her Swatch.

To be clear, when I say I was a punk, I don’t mean in the punk-rock sense. I was just a tad surly and prone to wearing baggy, less colorful clothes to contrast my sister’s membership in the Skittle Mafia. Had nose piercings made it to this country back in the Eighties, I no doubt would have had at least two. Oh, and I did like the occasional cigarette.

My partner in puffing was my friend Pam. A few times a month we would meet in the alley that separated our middle school from the back-end of a grocery store. It was there we would compare how many smokes we’d been able to steal; me from my grandmother who lived with us occasionally; Pam from her older brother. Aside from a faux love of Salem Menthols, we also shared a similar fashion sense. That’s why on one particular morning I took great joy in watching Pam’s jaw drop when I showed up in the alley.

“Dude…where’d you get the Army coat?” she exclaimed. “It’s so…real looking. Where can I get one?”

That was easy, I said. Just find your dad’s box from Vietnam.

My dad’s service in that war shaped my family. Whereas the other vets in our neighborhood never talked of their experiences, my dad spoke freely about that time in his life. Why he chose to become a Marine. The training. The deployment. His first firefight. The first time he watched a friend die.

The stories were never delivered in hushed, dark tones. He told them matter-of-factly. Some were light in nature like the time a giant rat fell on his head. Some such as the one of the twelve-foot python slithering across a trail made our skin crawl. And some just made us cry by virtue of watching the tears run down our father’s face as he recalled the violent death of a friend.

I knew even back then that the sharing of those stories, and the new ones I hear today, were his therapy. Memories of war are monsters that prowl the mind. There are those who will try to lock them up in some dark cave of their psyche. But my dad seemed attuned to a universal truth that all monsters fear the light and that by telling his stories, the hell they threatened could be kept at bay. But if those stories were therapy for him, they were an on-going tutorial for his children. Lessons on how to live; how to be humble; how to persevere, and above all, how to simply be thankful.

My punkiness faded by eighth grade. So much so that I actually wanted to follow in the footsteps of my older sister and attend the same high school. An all-girls Catholic school, no less.

On Graduation Day, my parents had a little party for me back at our house. When my dad found me outside he had had both hands full. In the left, two beers. (“You are headed off to college after all.”) And in the right, a tattered piece of paper about the size of a credit card.

“This is something your grandfather gave to me when I got back,” he said extending his hand. “I know you’re not heading off to war, but it’s still a good thing to look at every day.”

I took the card from him and read:

This is the beginning of a new day.
God has given me this day to use as I will.
I can waste this day or use it for good.
What I do today is very important
because I am exchanging a day of my life for it.
When tomorrow comes this day will be gone forever,
leaving something in its place I have traded for it.

I want it to be gain, not loss,
Good, not Evil,
success, not failure,
In order that I shall not forget the price that I paid for it.

 

Happy Memorial Day dad. I never forget.