Memorial Day is a time to honor the dead of all wars. It’s also a time when many of us reflect on their own and their families’ military service.
These days many people live their lives without time in the military but when I grew up most men volunteered for service — and many were drafted.
This subject came up when a friend paused from preparing for a trip to his place on the Kenai River to send me a video about the 1945 Japanese surrender to General Douglas MacArthur aboard the battleship Missouri.
He mentioned his dad’s service in World War II, his uncles and cousins who served in that war and Korea, and his brother’s time on swift boats off Viet Nam. My dad was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army and served on active duty near the end of the war. He was assigned to Okinawa but didn’t get there until after the fighting ended.
The only thing I remember from that time was that my father told me he had a pet monkey in Okinawa and intended to bring it home for my brother, sister and me but the Army made him give it up. We was robbed.
When I graduated from college they were talking about bringing back the draft. I decided that since I’d probably have to serve and didn’t want to interrupt a budding career, I would volunteer and get it out of the way.
I signed up for the Massachusetts Army National Guard and went first for two months of basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then for four months of radio teletype school at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Airlines were then handling most long distance travel but a couple of buddies and I decided we would take the scenic route and take the train from Massachusetts to Georgia.
The trip was interesting but uneventful until the train stopped to refuel and take on water somewhere in Georgia. This was my first time in the Deep South so I enjoyed the scenery and when the train stopped I got off to stretch my legs and look over the depot. When I got inside I had my first encounter with segregation and it was a great shock.
The waiting area was divided into two areas, each with large signs saying “White” and “Colored.” The notion of separating the races totally floored me. I’m sure I had read about it but there was nothing like that in Massachusetts and I hadn’t thought about it.
I found the signs so offensive that I walked over and sat in the Colored section, my little protest. But a black woman who was already seated there turned to me and said: “You better get out of here before you get us both in trouble.”
Her statement shook me up but I dutifully left the depot and climbed back on the train. This was long before the civil rights movement really got going and we in the North didn’t think about such things much.
But I did after that and when the movement really got active my sympathies were very much with those who had been suffering under segregation and the economic repression that went with it. I reported on all the big demonstrations for the Massachusetts newspaper I worked at, The Worcester Telegram.
Those were strange times far different than the present. But all eras are interesting and those growing up now will have their own memories.
Let’s hope very few of those are of war.
Tom Brennan is an Anchorage columnist and author of five books. He was a reporter/columnist for The Anchorage Times and an editor and columnist at The Voice of The Times.