As my father’s 70th birthday approached, I combed through the stores, but nothing seemed appropriate for this man I respect and adore. How can any gift express love or devotion to someone who has raised you and has always been there to guide you throughout your life? As I reflect on my father’s life, I have to concede that he was not always gentle in his manner. His teachings, though, were moral and based on his strong belief in God. He never forced his beliefs on us as children, but we know that when he needed help with a problem, he always turned to prayer. We marvel in disbelief as he prays for everything. In the past I had asked him why he didn’t save his prayers for the big things in life. His simple answer was, “The Lord said, ‘ask and you will receive.’” My father’s “can do” attitude and his striving for the best in life are things I have admired and tried to emulate in my own life.
My father, Commander Arthur R. Lee, U.S. Navy, retired, is a third-generation American seaman. He survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor, watching from the living room window as the enemy planes flew over his parents’ house—one of three officer’s quarters at the Naval Ammunition Depot at West Loch, a section of Pearl Harbor. The sounds of the bombs and gunfire throughout that morning are still alive as he tells the horror of war from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old. The exhausted and wounded bodies of the young sailors covered in oil, as they lay for days on the grass close by his home, left a vivid impression on his young mind.
A young Marine, only a few years older than my father, sat on the porch outside the door of the house polishing the stock of his bolt-action rifle. He appeared to be calm, but he was ready to defend the mother and her two young sons inside the blacked-out quarters. As the Marine gratefully ate the sandwiches offered by the young mother, he did not provide much comfort to my father. How could this one Marine with his old rifle defend the family from an impending invasion, when enemy airplanes had just destroyed the entire fleet?
After the attack, my father remembers going to school with his younger brother, riding the Navy bus with an armed guard and carrying their Navy-issue gas masks. As they passed Pearl Harbor, they saw the charred hulls of the once-majestic battleships strewn about the harbor.
When my father turned 17 he joined the Navy. He viewed it as his home, and found it an exciting life filled with unlimited opportunities. The discipline and structure helped prepare him for his career and future as a sailor, husband and father.
Not all was easy growing up in our military household. My father was stationed at a different base every three years or so. I went to many schools—too many to count. I relied upon my family, and they were my friends. My father’s strictness was tempered by his ready sense of humor. My mother intervened when the military got the best of him, and overrode his more demanding orders.
The many ups and downs we endured were normal for a military family. There seemed to be nothing we couldn’t handle. My senior year in high school, however, was different; that was the year my father was ordered to Vietnam.
I didn’t understand how he could be sent there. He was a father of four in his late 30s. How would we cope? It seemed that I did not understand anything that year. People were rioting, burning their draft cards and singing songs that opposed everything I was taught to respect. I did not want my father in Vietnam either, but I had to support him in his chosen military profession.
The protesters were not much older than I was, and I couldn’t bear the thoughts of my fellow classmates graduating and leaving for war. I was also mourning the fact that my father wouldn’t be there for my senior prom. The strength that I drew from my parents seemed to vanish with my father’s departure. Not that my mother was weak, but my father was a man whose presence was deeply felt no matter where he traveled.
Halfway through my father’s one-year tour, he was able to meet my mother for a “rest and relaxation” break in Hawaii for a few short days. And he had only one visit home from Vietnam, during which we had a huge family reunion at my grandmother’s house. As we sat eating at the table, my father spoke of playing the organ at the chapel in Cam Ranh Bay. He mentioned very little of the war; he did not even tell us (until after he finished his tour) that he had received a Purple Heart. My family listened intently for his answers as to why he had black marks underneath the skin of his face. But my father went on to another story, and the questions about his face were dropped.
My older cousins were also at the table. One in particular had long hair, wore a camouflage shirt and had already served two tours of duty in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart on each tour. My other cousins whispered to me that he was AWOL and after his wounds, he feared he would not survive another tour. He was one of six children and had two older brothers also serving tours in Vietnam. I could not comprehend what I was feeling. I was sitting at the table with my father, knowing he would soon be returning to Vietnam. I stared at his injured face and the face of my cousin. The war was becoming too real.
My father had to return to Vietnam within days. We dreaded the thought, but it was a situation that none of us could change. The brave face my parents showed, the humorous stories my father told of past reunions, made the time pass too quickly. We were caught up in the laughter and warmth of the day. My cousin left the party and I have not seen him since. He didn’t return to Vietnam, for which I am glad. The months passed slowly as my father served out his tour.
My father wrote about his weekly visits to the Catholic orphanage that was overcrowded and in much need of the food and soap he brought to them. He spoke sadly about one particular girl who was older than the rest and helped with the younger children. My father’s own childhood had been hard, and I’m sure he felt a kinship with this child. He wanted to adopt her, but my mother talked him out of it because they had four teenage children already.
I wrote to my father often. It was part of my way of coping, and of making sure he received mail. I hated the thought that he might get lonely. I wanted him to know that we supported his efforts there, and most of all that we missed him terribly and wanted our family whole again. I’m sure he was amused at my young ramblings. I wrote about the new school clothes Mom had bought, the friends I had made and the fact that the television was broken. I requested that the curfew he had imposed, which commenced when the streetlights turned on, might be lifted since I was older now. I drew pictures and sent cartoons out of the newspaper that he posted on the wall of his quarters. I was surprised to see that he had brought them home and has kept them to this day. All these many letters kept him advised on the goings on of his family. Later he told us of the comfort and immense joy he had received from reading our letters.
When my father came home from Vietnam we noticed a great change in him. His concerns on how the grass needed mowing, and the requirement that the length of my brother’s hair resemble the same length as the extremely short grass, were gone. He was more relaxed about the rules. Vietnam had put his life into a new perspective.
The years have gone by and my own children have grown into adults. How do I explain the love I have for my father? I believe he sees it every time he visits and instructs my son on the fine art of repairing some mystical part under the hood of his vehicle. My heart swells at the proud smile he displays as he attends the latest concert his granddaughter drags him to. My calls to him for advice on parenthood or the latest issue on the election ballot bring a twinkle to my eye as I hear him, in his traditional no-nonsense style, give me the answer that deep down I already know. What a blessing my father is.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.