I loved my father. A decorated Veteran of World War II and Manager of the Veteran’s Administration, he was a quiet and compassionate man. When I think of him, I remember how he smelled faintly of cologne and cigarettes, his tender hugs, how handsome he was, his gentle smile. My mother said he was never the same after he came back from the War, but that meant nothing to a sassy young girl at the height of Viet Nam. The reality was, at an age when we think we know everything, I had no idea about the unique parts that made up the man that was my father.
In 1969, I was a typical sixteen-year-old of the era. Tall, skinny, waist-length straight hair, I was in a phase of life where I believed ‘shocking and flamboyant’ was fun. My boyfriend was in Viet Nam; his brother, Chuck, was my best friend. Chuck and I wanted to join in a Viet Nam Memorial Day Protest Rally that was taking place in Tampa, just a few miles up the road. I thought I was so clever as I worked diligently creating what I knew would be a startling sign I could carry to protest a war I knew nothing about.
We lived on “The Pink Streets” in St. Petersburg, Florida. A few blocks from Tampa Bay, the neighborhood was an exclusive and secluded area with moss-covered trees and Southern, tranquil gentility. St. Petersburg had a saying, “People retire to Miami and their parents live in St. Petersburg.” So you didn’t do things like protest the War, because even a protest could produce the onset of heart attacks. And back then, sixty was really old, and I was just beginning to live.
Thrilled with my wit and the shock value of my finished product, I proudly took my sign to show Chuck and my father. “Fighting for Peace is Like F*cking for Virginity” it proclaimed in bold, red letters. Stupefied, my father stood and took it from my hand.
Without saying a word, he walked out the back door and headed purposefully down the street. I watched as he walked steadily toward the water with my clever work of art. At first angry, then stunned, in quiet amazement I watched as he threw my masterpiece into Tampa Bay. After standing silently for several minutes, he turned and walked calmly home. Never previously having exchanged a cross word with my father, I was blindsided that he would have done something like that, but duly chastised with his silent fury.
Chuck and I didn’t attend the Protest Rally that day. Without a single word, my father had spoken volumes to me about the subtleties of perception. With maturity I’ve come to realize that you don’t need words to teach a lesson, and that the realities of war and youthful idealism cannot always be bound together to make truth.