My Father, Memorial Day, and Reflections

Jack Marshall Sr Army portrait

[In the last few years of his life, my father used to take my sister and me on a pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. He was always strangely jolly about it, though appropriately reverent. We always visited the oddly inadequate Battle of the Bulge memorial, where my dad would usually tell us one new story of his horrible experiences in that conflict that he had previously suppressed. We always paid our respects to the humble grave of Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated American soldier. We did NOT visit the grave of my dad’s own father, whose betrayal of his mother he would never forgive, though my grandfather, a veteran of the First World War, was also buried at Arlington. Mostly we just walked around the beautiful surroundings, with Dad periodically admiring some grand monument and suggesting, tongue in cheek, that he wouldn’t mind being under something like that some day.

Dad’s running joke was that he had lived in Arlington, Massachusetts, was living in Arlington, Virginia, and would end up residing in Arlington National Cemetery…and so he did. I woke up this morning realizing that it has been more than three years since my father died at 89, quietly, napping in his favorite chair, and how quickly the years have passed since the most important person in my life left it. He was my hero and inspiration, my harbor in every storm, my living connection to history and the Greatest Generation, and also to the aspirations, wisdom and principles that guide me every day.

Living up to a legacy like my dad’s is daunting, and to some extent, futile. I have not been as good a husband as he was, nor as good a father. I have not approached in any way his level of sacrifice and devotion to his country, and I certainly have not overcome anything approaching the obstacles he did to reach this point in my life. Of course, that was his fault. My father was determined that my sister and I would have a smoother path than he did, and along with my mother, made certain that we could pursue our ambitions and dreams without anything approaching the indignities, disappointments and toil both of them had to endure. That may have, ironically, also guaranteed that we could never be as strong or as wise as he was. I confess that I am constantly haunted by the fear that my own meager achievements, if they are achievements, justify what my parents went through to pave the road for them. I feel something similar about the country, and its path since my father risked his life and traded in his youth—and foot—to preserve it. But those doubts are for another day.

The day at hand is Memorial Day, and the best I can do to honor it, the many, many soldiers who have fought and perished for our nation over the centuries, and my brave, noble, loving father, is to re-post this, my reflections on the day Jack Marshall, Sr. finally reached the last of his Arlingtons. Reading it over for the first time since I wrote it, this too seems inadequate for what my father deserves, but it was the best I could do at the time. I take some comfort in the knowledge that doing one’s best was the life’s standard that my father held above all others.]

February 1, 2009

Today the Army buried my father, Major Jack Marshall, Sr., with full military honors. He had earned them, for he was a hero in World War II. Let me correct that: every soldier who serves in battle is a hero, but my Dad had a few special distinctions, like a Silver Star and a Bronze Star to go with his Purple Heart.  He  sustained a crippling wound to his foot from a hand-grenade, healed enough to jam what was left of it into a boot, and went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.

Under the clearest of blue skies, with the cemetery covered in snow, a caisson drawn by black horses, one without a rider, carried my father to a gravesite ceremony where the American flag draping his casket was carefully folded by six soldiers and given to my mother, following a 21-gun salute. My father was a hero off the battlefield as well, a profoundly ethical and courageous man throughout his life, and how he got that way is worth examining.

It would have been so easy for him to grow up to be a bitter, angry, self-centered man. An only child raised in poverty by his mother  because his father deserted the family to run off with a younger woman,my dad had few opportunities to make friends. He had to change addresses regularly, as his mother sought work during the Depression. At every school, as the new kid, he was a target for bullies and beatings. (My father told me that he learned that the best strategy was to keep fighting as hard as possible, even though he was destined to lose to his many larger, stronger opponents. “If you fight hard enough, ” he said,”the bullies only beat you up once.”) His only friend as a young boy was a loyal Airedale named Bumbo; a neighbor poisoned the dog by putting broken glass in his food dish. Eventually my father bonded with four other poor boys from Louisville Kentucky that he met in the local Boy Scout Troop. They were like brothers to him and each other, and remained his closest friends for the next half-century, dying off one by one, until he was the last.

My father saw the Scouts as a family, and learned and believed in the virtues listed in the Boy Scout Law as ethical standards to strive for. His mother died of cancer, horribly, when he was barely 20, leaving him with no living relatives. My father considered making his career in scouting, but World War II intervened, and he was among the first to enlist. Early in the war, he saw one of his four “brothers,” Barry Malone, the childhood friend he most admired and felt closest to, plummet to his death when the plane he was piloting was shot down by German ground fire.

In the army, my father found that he had a talent for leadership. But the terrible wound to his foot, not a combat injury but a infuriatingly stupid one caused by a dim-witted soldier using the pin of a live grenade to fix his shoe and blowing himself, another man and my Dad’s foot to bits, ended any chance of a post-war military career. The deformed foot caused him constant pain and a life-long limp; eventually my Dad stopped limping, telling me that the foot hurt no matter what he did, so limping was pointless, and he didn’t like people feeling sorry for him.

But despite pain, tragedy and bad luck, my Dad was always positive, stoic, and kind. Because his own father had failed as a parent, Dad made parenting a relentless but joyful priority. Career, hobbies, vacations—everything in my father’s life was subordinate to being home and available to his wife, my sister, and me. He seldom told his children how to live their lives, preferring to lead by example. His values were strong, consistent and obvious: duty, honesty always, fairness and respect to all, and courage when it was needed.

It was only after my Dad’s death last year, on my birthday, that I started wondering how my father could have developed such strong moral and ethical convictions. He was not religious, at least in a traditional sense. Who taught him? I remembered that my father was fond of quoting various parts of a favorite poem to me when I had suffered a particularly galling misfortune, was suffering from the consequences of a bad decision, or was generally mad at the world. The poem was by Rudyard Kipling, a great British writer now out of fashion but one of a pantheon of great writers who sustained my father as a young boy, home alone late at night because his mother was working and his father wanted to have fun with his secretary. In a real sense, my father’s male role models were Zane Grey, Alexander Dumas, Jack London, Stephen Crane and Robert Louis Stevenson, for he read every book and story they wrote, and took the lessons of their tales to heart. None of them, however, resonated with my father like Kipling, whose stories of orphaned boys learning about life in the jungle and ordinary men rising to the occasion when compatriots or country were imperiled impressed and entertained him more than any other.

The Kipling poem my father kept quoting was, of course, “If,” the 1896 classic that is one of the most famous verses in the English language. Famous it is, and yet I hadn’t read it in years, if indeed I ever had; my father kept quoting from it, so I never felt the need, I guess, to read it through myself. When I finally examined the poem as part of my efforts to understand my father, I was amazed.

“If”  embodies all of my father’s values and principles.  His kindness tempered by independence and reserve, his casual disregard for material possessions or conventional measures of success; his determination; his courage; his willingness to sacrifice; his stubborn refusal to complain, or to fear what might lie ahead. Most of all, Kipling’s verse perfectly described my father’s philosophy of leadership (in its famous first lines that also appealed to my father’s love of wordplay and humor) and his dedication to diligently performing his duties to those who needed and trusted him, which was, I believe, what my father regarded as life’s foremost priority.

When I was given the daunting task of delivering my father’s eulogy in today’s service, and the challenge of summarizing a complex man and a rich lifetime of 89 years in only ten minutes, I knew what to do. After a brief introduction, I read the poem that had guided and taught my father so well, not only keeping him from cynicism and despair, but also giving him an ethical constant to follow when life was its most chaotic. I think it can do as much for all of us.

Do not let Kipling’s 19th Century use of the word “man” put you off. If the choice of phrase is responsible for this wisest of poems disappearing from our school curriculums, we have paid too large price for political correctness. That the poem is addressed from a man to his son does not diminish its value for all. I know my father believed that Kipling was addressing all of us, and so he was.

The poem was Rudyard Kipling’s gift to a lonely, father less boy searching for meaning and purpose. It was my father’s gift to his children, his final act as an exemplary and loving parent, teacher, and role model. It remains a gift to everyone who reads it, a manual for living an ethical and honorable life.

And here it is:

“If”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs, and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait, and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet, don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves, to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop, and build ’em up, with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn, long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—

You’ll be a Man, my son!

9 thoughts on “My Father, Memorial Day, and Reflections

  1. I envy you. My father abandoned me. It left a wound that will never heal and profoundly altered my life. What a blessing a loving father and mother is to the life of a child. May your father rest in eternal peace.

    • As the post mentioned, my dad’s father abandoned him as well, and in many ways, it made him the exemplary person he was. He always was an advocate for single mothers, maintaining, despite his own dedication to fatherhood, that they did just fine on their own. Certainly his mother did.

  2. Remembering this Memorial Day 2013 all the men and women that have served our nation. Your sacrifice is never forgotten.
    In Flanders Fields
    By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

    In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead.
    Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

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