The Vietnam War wounded America, but in an odd way, the unpopular war healed my relationship with my father.
I was 17-years-old in 1967 and straining against my parental reins. It seemed like everything I did bothered my dad. His “get off the phone” or “turn down that music” echoed throughout our suburban Chicago home. Our disagreements ranged from whom I should date to how often I should get to drive the family car.
To escape his constant harping, I spent my Saturdays at our local hospital, volunteering as a Candy Striper. On the day before Father’s Day, I found myself assigned to Ward 5. I didn’t look forward to it. Most of the patients there were gravely ill.
As I stepped into the hospital elevator that morning, I was joined by a young man in military uniform. Instantly I thought of my older brother, stationed in Vietnam. We all missed him terribly. In lieu of letters, he sent us cassette tapes so we could hear his voice. Whenever we played them, Mom would cry. Dad would simply leave the room.
I was tempted to ask the soldier if he knew my brother, but something in his eyes silenced me. Instead of returning my smile, he turned and stared at the stark gray elevator doors, kneading his hat in his hands. We both exited on the fifth floor. He stood looking up and down the hallway, the lines on his forehead deepening. Then Nurse Jenkins spied him.
“You must be Mr. Bates,” she said, grabbing his arm. “Come with me. Your father’s waiting.” I wondered what Nurse Jenkins was doing on Ward 5. She usually worked in the Emergency Room. I asked her about the mysterious soldier.
“I was in E.R. when they brought in an elderly man who’d collapsed in the street,” she told me. “He had no identification except for an old, smudged letter in his pocket. It was from his son, Jim Bates. You could tell the old guy had reread it hundreds of times. It practically fell apart in my hands.”
Nurse Jenkins then contacted the Red Cross and their sources located Private Bates at a military base in Kentucky. He caught the next plane for O’Hare.
She sighed, “I’m glad they found him. I don’t think his dad will make it to Father’s Day.”
Tears stung my eyes. Silently, I prayed for both men. Then I crept down the hall to see if I could help.
The soldier sat hunched over a straight chair next to the hospital bed. As he gripped the old man’s limp hand, I sensed those squeezes of love and encouragement were more beneficial than anything modern medicine could offer.
“Excuse me,” I said. “If you’d like to take a break, I’ll stay with your father awhile.”
When he didn’t turn around, I thought he hadn’t heard me. Then he said softly, “Thank you. No. This is where I want to be.”
After my shift, the pair continued to haunt me. I felt so helpless. Why couldn’t I trust God to take care of them? To make matters worse, my father and I quarrelled at dinner that night. When my date arrived to pick me up, I stormed out of the house without saying goodbye.
The next morning, I decided to stop by the hospital. When I arrived at the ward, I became apprehensive when I saw the solder standing at the nurses’ station. His words confirmed my worst fears. “He’s gone.” While one nurse rushed to the old man’s room, another touched the soldier’s arm and said, “I’m so sorry.”
His next words hit me like a thunderbolt. “Who was that man?” asked the soldier.
The nurse pulled back. “Why, he was your father, wasn’t he?”
“No, he wasn’t. I never saw him before in my life. When I first set eyes on him, I knew there had been a mistake. Then I realized he was too sick to tell whether or not I was his real son. I figured he needed me, so I stayed.” With that, the soldier turned and left the hospital.
Suddenly I thought of Jesus hanging on the cross, separated from his Father in heaven. If I had been at Golgotha, would I have reached out to Jesus with the soldier’s same compassion? I wanted to think so. But that happened so long ago.
Then a stab of shame rose from my stomach. There was someone I could reach out to who was still flesh and blood — my own father. Maybe his irritations with me were just a mask for the frustration he was feeling over my brother’s absence. Could I, like the soldier, be there for him?
Those thoughts raced through my mind as I drove home. Dad was mowing the lawn when I arrived. Leaving the engine running and the door ajar, I flagged him down. “Happy Father’s Day,” I cried, giving him a big bear hug. “I love you,” I said, planting a wet kiss on his cheek.
He looked confused. Then embarrassed. “Aren’t you a little old to be kissing your father?” he said stiffly.
But my gesture of affection became a hairline fracture in the dam between us. In the months ahead, our attitudes toward one another slowly softened. By the time I graduated from the traumatic teens and my brother had returned safely from Vietnam, Dad and I were able to joke that the war “at home” was worse than the one abroad.
As for the mystery soldier, we later learned that the real son was contacted in time to attend his father’s funeral. Apparently two soldiers with the same name had been stationed at the Kentucky base. A clerical error led to the mix-up.
But what I experienced that Father’s Day was no error. Until he died in 1977, I saw my Dad in a new light. My kisses never stopped, despite his feigned protests. He once asked me why I wanted to hug an old coot like him.
I replied, “Because you’re my father who ‘isn’t’ in heaven – yet!”