On the eve of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the original timing for Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day — I offer a column that I wrote a couple of years ago that’s obviously near and dear to my heart. I beg your forbearance.
My father, like so many of his generation, was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, although you’d never know it; he rarely talked about his time in the service.
The son of Norwegians (endearingly known as “God’s Frozen People”), Curt Morem grew up in Harmony, Minn., a town of some 1,200 farming souls located in the southeast corner of the state about 50 miles west of the Mississippi River.
Patriotism, as much as wanting to get out of a small town and see the world, led him to enlist the day after he graduated from high school in 1942; he was subsequently sent to Fort Dix, N.J., to be trained as an engineer — a prospect that no doubt thrilled my grandparents.
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When it looked like the invasion of Europe was a go, though, every able-bodied soldier at home was shipped overseas, regardless of training, to take part in the yet unknown D-Day.
This was a development that no doubt chilled my grandparents when they learned he was carrying a rifle rather than a slide rule.
Fast-forward a decade. My father had not only returned from combat in France, he’d re-enlisted for the Korean War and was stationed at Camp Roberts, where I was government-issued in ’51. My dad became a dentist and our family settled in San Luis Obispo.
Growing up in 1950s San Luis Obispo wasn’t unlike a continuous episode of “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver.” Our neighborhood was awash in baby boomlets whose fathers still wore their military-issued khaki pants to cocktail parties or while working around the house on weekends.
Around this time I began to pester my dad about his role in the war.
“Maybe some other time” was generally his response.
I’ve since found his reluctance typical of most vets who have seen combat. The horrors they witnessed — the degradation of the physical and spiritual, the breakdown of fundamental morality in seeking to kill others without getting killed — are all experiences that have forged a self-imposed code of silence for those who’ve been in battle.
But I was persistent. I knew he’d been badly wounded in Normandy, and that he’d earned a Purple Heart and other medals during his brief stint in the trenches. So I pestered.
Fast-forward another decade. I finally managed to winkle the information out of him after a family dinner where we did damage to a couple of bottles of wine.
He was tight; his story was simple: He landed at Normandy a few days after D-Day; fought through the countryside’s hedgerows until he found himself in a shell hole with his squad’s sergeant. He remembered his numbing fear ebb because sergeants were the most capable guys there were. Nothing could harm him. He was with Sarge.
But not for long; when his sergeant sneaked a peek out of the hole to see what was going on, his head exploded in a red spray. A neck squirting blood was all that was left of where his face had just been.
It was at this point my father began to cry. I had made a hero, my hero, relive the very worst moment of his life, breaking him down into sobs. I’ve regretted that instant for the last 30 years of my life.
So when the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month arrives tomorrow, Veterans Day, I’ll be thinking of my father and the millions of others who have gone into harm’s way so we can fully enjoy democracy, the fruit of their sacrifices.
No greater gift has been given; no amount of thanks is enough.