“The only good Jap is a dead Jap.”
WW II billboard erected at Pearl Harbor,
By order of Admiral “Bull” Halsey
I had been a real estate broker for a quarter of a century when I met James W. Rouse after a planning and zoning meeting in Easton, Maryland. The meeting had adjourned and I had been told to look for the most disreputable leather briefcase, probably with a broken handle. The elderly gentleman holding the case had the same style crew cut as my dad; a bald patch, centered.
I introduced myself and asked if it was true that his poker playing skills allowed him to avoid cashing a single paycheck when he served in the Navy during WW II. He laughed and said, “That’s close to the truth.” He asked how I had acquired this piece of information.
“My dad served on Admiral Halsey’s staff about the same time you did. He left Pearl to serve on an aircraft carrier.”
Mr. Rouse’s eyes lit up, “You’re Paul Young’s son?”
I confessed; he took me by the arm and walked me out to the courthouse parking lot. He set his case on a rusty Volvo sedan that was as venerable as the briefcase.
“Your dad was quite a poker player. He was famous for bluffing and he had a true poker face.”
“He never told me anything about it. I didn’t even know he played poker.”
“Your dad often laid down his hand and grown men would weep.” He smiled as he replayed old memories.
We talked for a few minutes in the warm summer twilight and I related how Dad had been on an aircraft carrier, The Chenango, until almost the end of the war. He had gone back into the Navy for Korea and eventually joined the active reserves where he served for over thirty years.
We shook hands and Mr. Rouse, multi-millionaire developer, drove off with the drone of a rusted-out Volvo muffler. I climbed into my car and thought about my father.
I never knew he was a hero until the evening of his retirement ceremony. Dad looked very “spiffy” (Mom’s words) in his summer whites, ritual sword (purchased just for this occasion) hanging at his side. My sister nudged me early in the ceremony and pointed out that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs does not generally turn up for a typical retirement observance.
The Admiral announced from the lectern that military historians generally agreed there were about 30 significant battles in the war in the Pacific. He smiled and said, “Rather than bore you by reading the names of all 30 of the battles I’ll just read you the names of the five battles that Captain Young was not in. The five he missed before a crash landing fighter started a fire that almost destroyed the aircraft carrier.” (After the fire, Dad was transferred to General MacArthur’s staff as part of a survey team. The poor Chenango was “retired” as scrap in the 1960’s.)
As I pulled out of the courthouse parking lot and headed home, memories of that ceremony gave way to another summer evening when Dad took me to a movie. It was a rare treat to have a workaholic father take me to the movies, but the science fiction sensation “First Spaceship on Venus” was something my mom and sister decided to pass on. In retrospect, there was probably only one person in the car who really wanted to see what Venusians looked like. The sacrifices parents make.
The plot of the movie revolved around a multi-national expedition from Earth landing on Venus to determine why the planet was permanently enshrouded in cloud cover. The Earthling scientists discover the ill-fated Venusians had harnessed nuclear energy to power their entire planet. Unfortunately, a reactor at the core of the planet ran out of control and destroyed the entire civilization.
No Venusians survive the disaster and the only remains left behind were some shadowy figures burned into the paint on the ruined walls of a building. I happened to look over at my Dad and his face was wet with tears. At age thirteen, I knew enough not ask a Navy Captain, watching a melodramatic science fiction movie, why tears were rolling down his face. The event stayed with me and a couple of years later I asked Mom about what had happened.
She paused and you could almost see the gears of her memory retrieving the location of the item in the attic. After twenty minutes of my shifting aged cardboard boxes, she opened a carton and removed a dusty shoebox. As she handed it to me, “Your father was on a Navy survey team that went into Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the bombings. He won’t want to talk about it, so just look at the pictures, and put them back, please.” She handed me the shoebox, wiped her hands on her apron, and returned to the kitchen.
I sat on the attic stairs and opened the container. There were about a hundred small, glossy black and white photos. They seemed as shiny as the day they were developed. Stiff, curled, but in sharp, crisp detail that showed the damage caused when atomic energy obliterates a city.
Picture after picture of burned and toppled ruins that were just barely distinguishable as buildings. The panoramic shots looked like the photos of earthquake or tornado catastrophes, far vistas of flattened rubble that extended for blocks. I recognized a famous building I had seen a hundred times; the ruined dome of The Prefecture Hall, the structure vaporized, leaving behind the metal framework, the burnt dome barren against the sunlit sky.
I was halfway through the stack when I found the picture. A fractured stucco wall with shadow figures burned into the charred paint. The Earthlings vaporized not by some accident, but by a nuclear weapon used by their fellow men.
My fiancée says most men control their emotions more than is healthy. They do not cry because they have been taught not to and because of the way they have been socialized. I do not know how often a man’s tears are necessary, for myself or anyone else. The memory of that one time with my Dad will always be with me. I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Whit Young is the author of “Lynching at the Legion” (Fear No Monkeys #17 on the Internet). A former Marine Sergeant who writes about the necessity for peace.
© 2014, Whit Young