What Did Your Father Do During the War?
by Roger A. Reid
For a young boy growing up in the sixties, it was a frequent topic of conversation. It usually came up during recess or after a game of weekend football, when the constantly competitive mind of a nine-year-old naturally gravitated to comparing stories of their dad’s military service.
With each boy determined to outshine the last with tales of his dad’s heroism and bravery, we listened intently to stories of gallantry and valor, all performed under the flag of patriotism.
Until it was my turn.
“So what did your dad do during the war?”
Dozens of times they asked. The same question over and over again. And each time, I felt the anxiety rise in my chest, my throat turning dry as I’d manage to mumble something like, “I’m not sure, or “I don’t remember.”
My answer carried lethal social consequences, and it made me hate those discussions. Because I had no “bragging rights.”
While the other boys could talk about their dads serving on a destroyer, or being part of a flight-crew based in Europe during WWII, the only thing I knew about my father’s wartime activities was that he worked at a company called Dow Chemical, located somewhere in Texas.
And that meant he had stayed home, where it was safe, away from the fighting, while the other fathers served their country, risking their lives, winning the war.
I was embarrassed. Because I had no story to tell.
I couldn’t brag about how many medals he’d won, the number of enemy soldiers he’d killed, or the number of refugee kids he’d fed with his field rations.
And in some ways—at least in the ways that matter to a nine-year-old—that made him less brave than the other dads.
Less of a man.
And as much as I hate to admit it, there were a few times when I wondered if that also made him less of a father.
The stigma of having a non-serving dad in wartime was something I carried with me for a long time—all the way through grammar and Jr. High school. Like an ugly scar, I did my best to keep it covered. But it was always there, just below the surface, and it never failed to set off a warning bell when the conversation began to head in the direction of the war, and toward the stories little boys like to tell.
To cope, I tried devising a defense mechanism. First, I’d try to change the subject. And if that didn’t work, I’d pretend someone wanted my attention, and use it as an excuse to walk away.
But even when my strategy worked, I’d spend the rest of the day wondering why my dad hadn’t stood up and done his duty—like the other dads. And it made me wonder if there was something wrong with him, if he’d been too afraid to fight.
Until I learned the truth.
It happened during a summer vacation, while making one of our annual two-week long trips to visit relatives in Texas.
It was a long and grueling car ride from Yuma, Arizona to Gonzales, Texas, and after arriving, we usually spent the first four or five days visiting with my only surviving grandmother. The rest of the time was spent driving around the state, spending a night or two with aunts and uncles from both sides of the family.
We were nearing the end of the trip and were visiting with my Uncle Lelon in Freeport, Texas. Uncle Lelon was a year younger than my father, and the two brothers had always been close.
I woke a little after midnight and started to make my way toward the kitchen in search of a glass of water. I was half-way down the hall when I hear them—voices echoing from the dining room. Surprised that anyone was still up, I stood there for a moment, not sure I should interrupt.
In the dead quiet of the house, I easily recognized my dad’s voice. The other half of the conversation came from Lelon. They were sitting at the dining table, chatting about their jobs, their kids, and how quickly Freeport was changing.
Then Lelon said something about Dow Chemical, and how many years had passed since they’d both worked there.
My father didn’t answer right away. Then he asked Lelon a strange question . . .
“You ever get over the nightmares?
Finally, Lelon spoke, his voice strained, then falling off to a near whisper. “For the most part. Once in a while, I’ll sense a strange fragment of something I can’t place. But then it will turn into something familiar. It might be a locker, or one of the men’s faces, and then I realize I’m back in the cells.”
It took several minutes before the conversation became fluid again, each man giving the other permission to speak. I could tell that both were struggling with it, uncomfortable with the memories.
As each took his turn, remembering, talking about their experiences, the missing pieces of my father’s life began coming together in a way that was difficult for me to imagine. And what I learned, standing stone-still in that dark hallway, changed the way I thought about him—forever.
His life during those years—spending each day in an environment that was the most dangerous of any war-plant in America—not only erased the embarrassing shame I’d felt over my father’s lack of combat experiences, it replaced it with an overwhelming sense of sadness as I realized how he’d forced himself to endure the daily threat of injury and death.
My dad had worked in a special part of the plant called the magnesium cells, where the raw element was processed for use in munitions and aircraft construction.
In a molten state, magnesium is unstable and extremely flammable. And although batch processing in the 1400 degree ovens was an extremely dangerous job, the need for magnesium in WWII was overwhelming, and that meant the plant’s priority was on production, not safety protocols.
“Remember Samuel?” My uncle asked.
I couldn’t see my dad’s reaction. I assume he nodded.
“He always described coming to work each day as setting a noose around your neck, never knowing when God was going to yank it.”
Finally Lelon said, “I remember some of those mornings, waiting outside the gate, and being so scared I wished I’d called in sick.”
“But you never did,” my dad said.
“Once we were inside, I couldn’t think about it,” Lelon said. “I just keep moving, watching, making sure the guys didn’t open the ovens too soon.”
As I listened to their conversation, I began to form a picture of my Dad’s war-time activities. He spent part of his time supervising the process from the elevated cat-walks, looking for tattle-tale leaks, knowing if he found one, there would only be a few seconds to evacuate the area, before the room became the nearest thing to hell on earth.
He often dropped to the floor to help open a cell when it was time to move the molten magnesium from the processing ovens to the cooling rooms, knowing how easily it could explode into an inferno of metallic plasma.
A leak, an overflow, or a mis-pour of the metal was called a scald. And sometimes a man lost a hand or an arm. An explosion and the resulting fire was a bad scald . . . and it usually meant somebody died.
Lelon drew a deep breath. “I remember how a lot of the guys would sit in their cars before the start of a shift, and when they thought no one was looking, take a swig from a pint of whiskey.”
“Some of them emptied the bottle,” my dad added. “Probably trying to get through one more day.”
“When did you finally tell Opal? Lelon asked.
“Couple of years after the war had ended. She brought it up one night. Someone at church told her about a neighbor who’d also worked at Dow, and wondered if I knew him. I decided it was time to tell her . . . I didn’t want her hearing it from someone else.”
I thought about that for a long time. While he’d worked there, my dad had not told my mother the truth about his job. He knew she’d heard the stories of how men had been killed in the mag cells, the flash fire leaving no corpse, not even a skeleton to bury, because someone misread a temperature gage, or left too much air in the ovens, and unlocking the door had unleashed a flash fire that was impossible to put out until the fuel was exhausted.
“I didn’t want her worrying,” my dad added. “She had enough to deal with.”
The rest of the trip came and went, and we arrived home to a stack of mail and front yard that was two weeks past cutting.
I let a week pass before I brought it up. Waiting until we were alone, I told my dad about that night, how I’d overhead him and Lelon talking, and about the mag cells and the men who sat in their cars drinking whiskey to dull the fear, and the workers who watched in horror as a scald left one of their co-workers badly scarred, or missing a hand—or worse.
And then I asked him to tell me what it was like—how many men had died, how long the fire would burn.
Because it’s what a fourteen-year-old asks.
He paused for a second, his face suddenly drawn and hard. But instead of answering me, he shook his head, dismissing my questions. He told me it was just his job, and how fortunate he was to be able to stay with his family during the war.
That’s all he ever said. It was the last time he talked to me about what he did during the war.
Eleven years later, a few days following my twenty-fifth birthday, he passed away. And after the funeral, when the house had finally emptied, and the last friend and mourner had left, I sat down and had a conversation with Lelon.
I told him about that night eleven years earlier, when I’d stood in the dark hallway, listening to their conversation. And how I’d asked my dad to tell me more, and how he’d brushed it off, not wanting to talk about it.
Lelon nodded, then fell quiet, as if he understood my father’s reaction. At first, I thought he was remembering that night in Freeport, when he and my dad sat at the kitchen table, talking. But as the silence grew, I realized his thoughts had taken him back even further, to the catwalks at Dow, and the furnaces below.
“There was a reason your dad didn’t like to talk about it,” he said finally.
“Because it was so dangerous?”
Lelon shook his head. “We all knew that. It wasn’t the job, the hard work, or the fear. It was the men that got hurt. He was the one who had to handle that.”
Then Lelon told me the final part of the story, the part my father had always kept to himself.
My dad was the shift supervisor. Every accident, every death, was his responsibility. Instead of supervising from a small office, he worked the cells personally, looking over the men’s shoulders, watching the metal cook, adjusting the valves, reading the gages, and taking over when a man was sick, or caught a bad case of the shakes and had to be sent home.
“We knew he didn’t have to be there, working on the floor,” Lelon said.
“So why was he there?” I asked.
“I asked him that. More than once, I asked him, ‘Why do keep coming to the cells every day? You got a promotion. You don’t have to be here.’ He always gave me the same answer – he’d worked in the cells longer than anyone and there might be something he could do, something that would make a difference when there was a bad scald. Because he thought he could do it faster.”
The following day, I began going through my dad’s things, packing up some of them for donation, and carefully setting his watch and a single pair of cuff-links he wore to church into the pocket of my suitcase.
At the bottom of his document box, I found his military deferment card. I was familiar with the common designations of 1A, 4F and 2S, but this was different. Because his work was considered essential to the war effort, my father was not only exempted from military service, he was barred from it. The government called it Critical Civilian Service. Translated, it meant he would fight the war from a catwalk instead of a trench, battling threats from a chemical enemy instead of a human one.
As a kid growing up in the sixties, I learned many things from my father. Most of the lessons were simple and straightforward . . . how to tie my shoes, to look both ways before crossing the street, to brush before bedtime, and to help others in need. But what I learned standing in that dark hallway on a warm summer night in Freeport, Texas, was far from simple. And at the time, I couldn’t fully understand the importance of what I was hearing. But as I look back from a lifetime of hindsight, the message is clear, and the lesson is the same whether we’re talking about a parent, a spouse, a boss, or a business partner.
1. Everyone has a history, but not everyone is comfortable sharing it. Unfortunately, the less we know about someone, the more likely we are to treat them with negative prejudice. We make judgments. We build walls. The downside? We’re often wrong. An un-shared history is not an invitation to eye it with suspicion. Before learning the truth, I had let what I didn’t know about my father’s past affect how I felt about him in the present, and I spent several years of my childhood thinking less of him than he deserved—a terrible waste of time that I can never retrieve. Until others prove you wrong, give them the benefit of the doubt.
2. Never assume you know all there is to know about someone. Buried deep within a lifetime of memories are days of sorrow and sacrifice, of joy and conquest. A welcoming smile often conceals dreams never realized and hopes that eventually faded into disappointment. Before making a pre-emptive strike to judge someone’s company undesirable, give them the opportunity to tell their story. Hidden truths are often concealed with the best of the intentions.
3. The relationships in life that really count cannot be based on 280 characters. Twitter is not the definitive source to determine someone’s character. Facebook is not a place on a map where someone was born. And Instagram is not a CliffsNotes summary of someone’s life. And yet, we’ve learned to quickly compartmentalize others based on what we find online—creating digitally-based relationships that thrive on neat and tidy little packages constructed from a collection of prom pictures, favorite movies, and how they spent last Friday night. Real flesh and blood relationships are built on compassion, concern, and trust. All of which takes time. And for good reason.