My Dad’s War
I believe our lives make stories, but stories can also make lives.
I’ve known the first half of this belief for most of my life; ever since I was a small child clutching my father’s leg, while listening to my Appalachian relatives tell tales about mountain folk. I am, after all, a storyteller from a long line of southern storytellers.
However, it took me fifty years to learn the truth of the second half of that belief—stories can also make lives.
You see, recently, my niece invited her grandfather (my father) to her high school history class to talk about his experiences in World War II. He spoke of being a platoon leader, of a soldier’s life, of basic training, and fighting. According to the teacher, the class hung on his every word. My niece glowed in the limelight, the teacher was pleased, and the kids were interested. But what all of them did not know—including my father—was that he’d never been in the war.
It’s true; he was in the service–but after WWII and before Korea. His army experiences get all muddled-up for him, because my father has Alzheimer’s. The problem is, despite the disease, Dad’s a great storyteller. Only now, he believes his own stories.
Born and raised in the hollers of Kentucky, Dad was the last child of twelve. As the youngest, he had to talk to be noticed—and talk he did, with a passion.
When I and my siblings came along, we pestered him to repeat our favorite stories. These included: the relative who got bit by a rattle snake and saved his life by drinking a quart of moonshine; the time Grandpa shot and killed a man who’d come down the road drunk, and took a shot at my Grandmother; how Dad learned to run faster on his knees than his feet while working in the coal mines; and the times he had outpacing the law in his 1941 Mercury Coupe while running moonshine.
Perhaps these are not the kind of stories we tell children today, but they gave a kind of mythic quality to my father. He was faster, stronger, wilder, and more adventurous than all my friends’ fathers—and he truly was for many years. He raced motor-cross, he won state championships at archery, and he built speed boats and water skied. He did anything he wanted to. At seventy-four he was hill-climbing four-wheelers. In his mid-seventies he was still bear and wild boar hunting. And always, he had the storyteller’s gift of a silver tongue to talk about his exploits.
Dad remains a talker, some days you can hardly get him to stop. At eighty-one, and with advancing Alzheimer’s, there are new stories; about his ability to sing, to lead groups of men, to do deeds in places he’s never been—like fighting in WWII. We used to cluck and say, “But Dad, you couldn’t have done that . . .” Or Mom would try to correct him. Not anymore.
When I asked my mother why she’d let him go to my niece’s class to speak when she knew he had never been in World War II, she said, “It made him happy.” I knew, then, that the stories Dad tells these days are the mythic life he’s creating for himself—a world where despite his weakening body, his worsening eyesight, and his tremors, he fights a good war.
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