I never saw my father in uniform. For me, growing up in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., Dad was a civilian, a government employee who worked for NASA. Each morning he would put on a suit and tie, have some breakfast, and leave for the office. Each night he would come through the door, take off his jacket, loosen his tie, and join us for dinner. He did this for 20 years.
And yet for more than two decades before I was born, Dad put on a uniform and left the house, not for a few hours, but sometimes for a few years. During the Great Depression, he and his brothers helped his father earn a living by building stone walls throughout the city. On the side, he played shortstop for a local, semi-pro baseball team. But then Uncle Sam came calling and, like so many others across the country, Dad responded to the call and served his country, first in World War II, later in Korea and in the Cold War.
My brothers and sisters all knew him as a United States Army officer, but by the time I came along, the uniform had been put away for good. All I had were old photos and the stories that came with them. Some tales he was delighted to relate, and did so on more than one occasion. I heard about that great day when he and the other liberators marched into Paris. And that even greater day in Paris some time later, when he was enjoying some long-awaited R&R with two buddies at a café in front of the Grand Hotel, only to hear an announcement come over the loud speakers that Hitler's forces had surrendered and the European part of the war was over. Within minutes of the broadcast, he said, you could walk across the Champs Elysees on heads and shoulders, so great was the number of revelers on the street.
There were other stories he was less inclined to share, as when he saw his good friend, his best man, shot before his eyes. Or when he entered a concentration camp at the end of the war and saw firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust. Looking into the eyes of those emaciated persons before him, he saw no hope, nothing. They were, he said, the walking dead. And then there were the stories he never shared, not with anyone. But my mother saw the results, as she would awake again and again to him screaming in his sleep, reliving nightmarish memories.
Yet through it all, my father never lost his bright smile or good humor, his faith in God or his love for his family. Like so many others who put on the uniform, he was just an ordinary person who had to face extraordinary challenges -- and rose to the occasion. Dad died three years ago at the age of 95, one more member of that "greatest generation" no longer with us. Shortly before he left, I presented him with a photograph of a brick with his name and rank on it, a brick laid down at the entrance of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. In light of all he had done, mine was a paltry gift, but it still felt good to do it.
Now, as I approach another Memorial Day, I cannot help but think of that soldier I never saw in uniform. The closest I came was on Saturday mornings when we would venture into the city, to the commissary at Fort McNair, for our weekly grocery run. Each time, the guard at the front gate of the base would take note of the colonel's decal on our car, and suddenly stand at attention and salute my father. And I would see my father's shoulders straighten, and his arm stiffen, as he returned the salute. And if I looked carefully enough, I could see the uniform that he never truly took off.
This Memorial Day, I give thanks to God for my father, and all those in this country who have worn a uniform and worn it well. "O God, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Amen."
The Rev. Dr. C. K. Robertson is Canon to Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.