I went in search of my father this week and came up empty handed.
I was planning a Veterans Day column on my dad, who died when I was 6, and served in both World War I and World War II.
He was born in 1899 and joined the Army for the first time at 19. Family legend says he was so anxious to serve that he gorged himself on bananas to hit the weight limit.
During WWII he enlisted at the age of 42.
I once had a photo of him sitting on a trash can in front of some barracks.
Other pictures I’ve seen of him after he got out of the service, show the damage a lifetime of drinking had done, but everyone looks better in uniform.
I was proud of his service and wanted to say so.
But I was frustrated in my efforts. I tried one idea and then another. Draft after draft was scuttled.
Then, at 2 a.m., this morning, I found myself awake — still searching.
I went through box after box of family letters and photos.
My once clean study was a mess of photos and paperwork, but I was no closer to whatever it was I was searching for.
Finally, I opened a blue box I’d been through before marked “War Letters.”
Mostly they were letters between my mother and father about practical things — what bills to pay, how to turn the gas on and whether to sell their car.
Then I came upon another batch of letters in the box I’d never read before.
The author was someone my father worked with stateside. When my father received the letters, he was already out of the military, home in Sheboygan, working as office manager for the local gas company.
But his friend, his co-worker, had found his way to Europe.
He wrote about the day-to-day, the drudgery and the boredom.
He wrote one letter when he was drunk and apologized for it in the next.
He sent another letter cut up into squares and tried to explain it away as a joke in the next.
Another beseeched my father to track down the man’s wife — who had apparently moved without telling him.
The first letter from France was dated, Aug. 16, 1944 — two months after D-Day.
“When we first landed in France, the night sky was lit up with the flashes of artillery... anti-aircraft of all types opened up at a low flying plane and we could have sworn the tracers in the cross fire were coming right at us ... we hit the ground.”
“You’ve seen Fourth of July fireworks but it can’t compare to that which we seen (sic). Those tracers are real and with every battery on the coast opening up it made the night darkness change into a red glow.”
When the “fireworks” stopped, he wrote, it meant another town had been secured.
“I’ve been in the cities where the big battles have been fought and they are a heap of stone and rubble.”
“Bulldozers work much like snow plows after a storm, clearing the main roads through the towns. No people are in these towns waving to us as we pass … The photographs of civilians greeting our troops are all taken in towns in which there was little or no damage.”
He ended a letter recalling a quieter time when he and his fellow soldiers camped in a clearing surrounded by trees that reminded him of those “back home.”
“Within this enclosure is our orchard. I’ve watched a full moon rising over the treetops and it’s really beautiful.”
“Last night as the shadows blended into darkness and a faint grey (sic) was in the sky, I stood next to our little amplifier attached to a tree. All the rest of the fellas had gone to bed, when “Waltz Time” came on the air. As I listened they played ‘Time Waits For No One.’”
Then he added, “For the first time I started thinking about all the time I’ve been away from home. Time spent without those we love which can never be brought back.”
He signed off by saying, “You’ve heard enough of my ramblings.”
The letter was signed, simply, Herb.
I have no idea what happened to him, whether he made it home or not, whether he ever found his wife, whether my father ever saw him again.
Despite all my digging, all the paper strewn about, my father remains a mystery.
But at least Herb is no longer an unknown soldier.
He came back to life for a few moments early this morning.
I’m glad to have found him and resurrected a few moments of his life.
For Herb and all the others who served their country, this Veterans Day is for you.
Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.