Veterans Day 2009
Despite the fact that my Dad served overseas during the Vietnam War, I never really thought of him as a “veteran.”
He’d been stationed on a base in Korea near the DMZ. He never told “war stories.” I don’t remember groups of old Air Force buddies visiting the house when I was growing up. No medals or mementos around, unless you count the tables and lamps he had shipped back home as gifts for mom.
I was only two years old when his four-year service in the U.S. Air Force ended in 1972. He came back from South Korea to Lima, Ohio – I honestly don’t remember him being gone, though I do remember being small enough to wear the jacket in this picture – and he and mom and I went about our lives.
Among Dad’s pictures from overseas is a shot of him yelling across a crowded bar that always reminded me of a scene from M*A*S*H, and in the background is a sign reading, “Pardon me, sir, but you’ve obviously mistaken me for someone who gives a shit.” I always liked this picture because a) Dad looks like he’s having fun, and b) the sign said “shit,” and swearing was funny, especially when I was little.
After this recent post, my mom commented that she and Dad were supposed to get married in October of 1968, but they had moved the wedding up to early September after Dad was drafted.
This was news to me, and didn’t seem to make sense, since he’d been in the Air Force, so I visited mom yesterday morning to find out the story.
It goes like this, give or take:
Dad graduated from Upper Sandusky High School in 1965 and took a job at a manufacturing company, painting auto parts: one of the pieces that held the grill of a Pontiac Tempest in place, Mom thinks.
On the job, a piece of heavy equipment fell on his ankle and lopped off that bone that sticks out the side. He had it fixed with a pin, but the injury was enough to earn him a deferment when his number came up in the draft for the first time.
He spent a year at Bowling Green State University, but didn’t have the money to keep attending, so he returned to Upper Sandusky and got another job.
Mom, who went to nursing school right after high school, remembers the U.S.S. Pueblo’s capture in January 1968, and said suddenly it took a lot more than a pinned ankle to get a deferment, and when Dad’s number came up after that, he chose to enlist in the Air Force rather than be drafted into the Army.
He was barely six months past his 21st birthday.
When he was doing basic training at Sheppard AFB in Texas, Dad decided he wanted to be a medic.
This was an odd choice: All through her nursing school education, Mom said Dad never showed any interest in medicine.
In fact, he had apparently always planned on being an accountant. (This image of my Dad as a numbers-cruncher is so out-of-whack to me that I have trouble drawing even a remotely appropriate parallel.) Mom says Dad had even begun correspondence courses in accounting, and they bought an adding machine which she stuffed into his duffel bag so he could keep up with his schoolwork when he went into the service.
So now, here he is calling to let her know he checked the “medic” box, and her mind is immediately filled with images of Dad hauling injured guys from the battlefield under heavy fire, and she kind of freaks out.
After basic, they were transferred to Kincheloe AFB in Michigan’s upper peninsula, where Dad met a guy who told him about this thing called “anesthesia,” and about how being an anesthetist looked like a good career choice, and that’s where Dad decided what he’d do after finishing his Air Force service. (He also got papers todeploy to Turkey while he was at Kincheloe, but those were rescinded due to me arriving on the scene in November 1970.)
Not long after that, Dad wound up serving in South Korea, but I’m a little fuzzy on where, exactly. I always thought he was stationed at a place called Kojin – I have a baseball-style cap embroidered with “Kamp Kojin Korea” on the front, “Doc” along one side and “Commander USAF Hospital” on the back – but I can’t find any references to such a location online. Another cap I have says “USAF HOSP Osan ’71-’72” on it, and along the back edge, “Johnny”, “Rich” and “Pam.”
My Dad, Richard Earl Booth, returned home in 1972 and became an anesthetist and a tremendously awesome father of three, and
despite his pre-Air Force aspirations always referred me to Mom for math advice once I was past Algebra I.
When I was about 16, he gave me the heavy wool Air Force trenchcoat he got when he enlisted, which I absolutely loved.
Dad died of complications from kidney cancer on May 12, 1993, one week after his 46th birthday. I think of him regularly, though until this year, for some reason, never really in the context of Veterans Day.
He always gave the impression that his time in Korea was no big deal; that he never did anything “heroic”; that he only did what he needed to do to take care of his family in the long term.
But what gets to me now, as a father coming all-too-rapidly to the end of my thirties, is thinking about the choices Dad made when was only 21, and then having to leave Mom and me an ocean and a continent away, and comparing that to where I was when I was that age, and wondering how in the world he ever did it.
I miss him. And I’m thinking of him today trying to truly appreciate what that choice meant.
Addendum: I would also like to thank my editors at GeekDad for compiling this Veterans Day list and including my father.