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Posted: November 8, 2009 12:30 a.m.

More than self their country loved

My daddy stood up and put his hand over his heart every time our national anthem was played, and when it was over, he wiped tears from his eyes. It didn’t matter where we were or how many people were around, either. When the flag passed in a parade, Daddy’s hand was on his heart and tears were in his eyes. At high school football games, right after the preacher prayed the pre-game invocation over the loud speakers, when the band played "The Star-Spangled Banner" Daddy stood at attention, faced the flag and got misty-eyed.

As a kid, that embarrassed me a little bit. I remember asking Daddy why he was crying, and he’d always just shake his head, gather himself, and in a few moments be back to his normal, jovial self. But one time curiosity was just too much for me; I asked Mama why it was that Daddy seemed to always cry when he heard the national anthem.

Mama said the national anthem reminded Daddy of his service as a Navy corpsman in World War II, which meant a lot to him.

Well, I was just a little kid, and although Mama’s explanation sufficed, it didn’t really sink in. So as I grew older, from time to time at public events like a football game or a homecoming parade, I felt a little embarrassed at Daddy’s show of emotion.

Then one night, when I was 14 or so, I was rummaging in a cabinet and discovered bundles of photographs and miniature postcards and letters. I went into the den where Daddy and Mama were watching the Huntley-Brinkley evening news report on NBC and asked what they were.

The bundles proved to be "V-Mail," the letters servicemen wrote to their families, and vice versa, which after scrutiny by government censors was miniaturized for ease of delivery to and from the faraway places our men were stationed during the war.

Daddy sat down on the living room floor with me and went through hundreds of letters and pictures. We did fine while viewing pictures from when he was stationed in England and Wales, preparing for his part in the D-Day invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. But when we shuffled through photographs of his unit in the Philippine Islands, the tears started up. I remember to this day Daddy sitting cross-legged on the floor, picking through picture after Polaroid black-and-white picture, tears trickling down his cheeks and dripping off his jaw onto his sleeveless T-shirt.

Somehow I summoned up the guts to ask, "Daddy, why are you crying? And why do you cry when the national anthem comes on TV during the baseball games?"

Daddy gathered himself and put the England pictures aside. He selected a half-dozen or so pictures from the stack of Philippine Islands photos and told me to scoot over next to him. He then showed me the tents and boardwalks built up several feet above the quagmire of mud which appeared every rainy season, and groups of his buddies posing for the pictures.

Then, tossing the pictures down, Daddy told me how he’d pulled so many of those men from shell holes, from bomb craters, and how one particularly unforgettable day he grabbed one of his very best friends by the shirt to pull him to safety, but there was only about one-third of the man’s body left intact.

He told me of sacrifices he’d seen men make, not to win a war, but for each other. Daddy talked to me about the passage in the Bible that says "no greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for a friend." Choking up then, he quoted that amazing phrase from "America the Beautiful" which says "Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife; who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life."

And he wept a little right then and there, remembering the broken bodies of his friends, the sacrifices made in the name of freedom. From that night on, I was no longer embarrassed if Daddy cried, and I finally started to understand about the important things in life.

America celebrates Veterans Day next Wednesday; those who remember will also celebrate Armistice Day. I’m hoping Americans will also honor those Army folks who were so tragically taken from their families — from all of us — in the deadly Fort Hood rampage of Thursday.

If Daddy was alive, he’d have turned 99 a week ago today, but he died when I was 17, not long after we had that talk about things that made him cry.

The more things change, though, the more they remain the same. Come Wednesday, when I fly the flag and hear our national anthem, I’ll do the crying for both of us.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.

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