the military, in one way or another, was always the drumbeat keeping time in my family when i was growing up. the year i turned 18 was the last year of the draft, and although my mother had suggested i enlist (career opportunities! great retirement package–should you survive left unsaid, but there was never a period at the end of that sentence–as there is in this one.) my draft number was in the 300s (whew!), and off to college i went.
my mother enlisted in the women’s army corps in 1950 after the demise of her second marriage to wyoming rancher, bill russell (i think it’s interesting that she’s noted as ‘miss’ evelyn h. russell), following a tradition set by her uncle (maynard high served in the navy in wwII and her half-brother, ralph jr., who had been in the navy after wwII. what i want to know is why two land-locked men from wyoming joined the navy, but i digress.)
after basic training, she was posted to fort sheridan as a telephone operator (a previous life choice, better left for another time) where she met my father, a sargeant in the army. (is this boring yet, this litany of where’s and when’s and who’s? why should you care, you might be asking yourself about now, about robert’s mother’s military service, but to know this is to understand a little bit more about me–and after all, it is about me, i mean the blog is called ‘robert patrick’ for a reason.)
enlisting may have been the smartest thing my mother ever did for herself. it got her away from the expectations of her family and put her, eventually, in a position to take control of her own destiny–as much as one is allowed to do that–but, she was able, after a time, to make her own decisions about how she led her life and with whom.
there is only a brief time in our life together when the military did not impact our lives, but so short as to be inconsequential. after she and i moved to rapid city, she soon found a job at ellsworth air force base, where she worked for the next 17 years. as it turns out, she was quite the object of desire among many an enlisted man (and some officers, too) at ellsworth, but one made a point of dogged pursuit and eventually proposed (she accepted!) and they lived happily ever after (well, mostly, her protracted duel with cancer a possible deterrent to their mutual happiness.)
he, (first name roy. roy was the middle name of my father. a coincidence? i think not.) a life long enlister: enlisted in the army and served in germany at the end of wwII, discharged from the army and enlisted in the marines and served in korea, discharged from the marines and enlisted in the air force and served two tours of vietnam, finally ending up at ellsworth and falling in love with my mother. i’ll say this: you would have never known he was or had been in the service; he was the gentlest and kindest man who loved my mother i had ever met.
did i mention that my grandfather on my father’s side had been in the army and served in europe during wwI where he suffered a head wound (part of his skull was blown away by shrapnel and had been replaced with a metal plate–a constant source of amazement for his grandchildren, “grandpa, may i touch the plate in your head?” and he, as quiet and pleasant an individual you’d ever hope to meet, a barber with his own shop in south springfield, illinois, that he could walk to from home, it was literally around the corner, never complained — that we heard — and he would say, “touch it right here and you can feel the edge of it,” taking our small hands and placing them just so on the side of his bald head. grandpa smoked a pipe and wore bow ties and if i ever find a picture of him to show you, you’ll think he stepped right out of grover’s corners or spoon river or possibly a norman rockwell painting for the cover of LIFE magazine.)
so. when m. showed me this drawing yesterday at the long beach flea market i knew we had to have it. look at his face and you’ll see the sadness, the sense of loss, and the world-weariness that emanates from his eyes and the set of his jaw, this young man drawn by someone (was it a dollar portrait on olvera street?) toward the end of the war. there is a loneliness in his face (home-sickness, perhaps?) that fills me with sadness and compassion.
have i told you that i read the military obituaries that are posted each sunday in the l.a. times? they move me so, these young lives cut short, their wives, husbands, children set loose from their love (i do want to believe that there is love lost, in spite of my own experience with a father in the military.) it is the folly of man, is it not, that allows our youth to fight old men’s battles? how else to explain their resolve to destroy these futures? yes, i admire those who fight for us and yes, i rue their loss; losses that seem monumental to those who survive and inconsequential to those who prompt them. there must be a better way.