It was under a threadbare quilt on a thin mattress in a cheap, little rental house that the dying man lay.
Surrounding the sagging bed were his wife, who had this one last ordeal to share with her husband, and his 15-year-old son, who had always looked up to his dad as a good man. Standing by, but with nothing to do, was the doctor.
It was 1943, and Charles Thompson, 58, was finally being dragged to ground by the lung and heart diseases that had long dogged his steps, gaining with each passing year.
They waited, not knowing when he would pass, but aware it would be quite soon, as was he. He was a tough man who knew death well, so he waited with calm acceptance. At the end, he told his wife and son he loved them, and “All in all, we had a pretty good life together.”
That son, Jim Thompson, is now an 87-year-old retired Navy officer living in Bonita. The widower’s modest tract home is worth several times his father’s entire lifelong earnings.
Now in the quiet days of his own sunset, Jim often thinks back to the father who seemed to be a failure at everything but a husband and dad. But Jim now knows better.
Charles could never put together that winning combination that makes strangers want to shake your hand. He could never squeeze past the barrier that was the Great Depression. But he tried, and he kept his dignity and his honor, and that’s what counted to his son.
After escaping a home poor in everything, including love, teenager Charles joined the Army and served in the Philippines against the Muslim Moros at the turn of the last century. Leaving the Army, he wandered to Montana, where he worked as a ranch hand and joined the National Guard. When the Great War broke out, his passage to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force was inevitable.
In battle, Lt. Thompson suffered three-quarters deafness and was wounded three times. After leaving the Army again in 1919, he had to deal with the hardship of being semi-disabled with a sixth-grade education in the hard times of the ’20s and ’30s.
Many were the times that the family had only his $50 monthly military pension to survive on. The grievous sense of failure that a proud man would feel in being unable to support his wife and son without government help is hard to fathom in this day of the public safety net.
It is a myth that a Depression-era family could take much comfort in others having the same plight. The fact is, though wages were thin, even during the darkest days most men had jobs and could put a decent roof over the family’s head and supply a chicken for Sunday dinner. Some looked down on other men who couldn’t.
Jim remembers his father as remaining steadfast during those times, at least outwardly. He didn’t get drunk and howl at misfortune and maybe beat someone close by, almost always a wife or child.
Not Charles. Jim remembers him as calm, loving and abstemious, even when his scratchings for a dollar led him to washing dishes or waiting tables in cheap diners. Jim remembers his mother would make Bordeaux sauce and put it in glass jars and then his father would peddle them door to door.
Another time, he nailed together a wooden box and bought candy and cigarettes, then sold them to patrons of a bookie joint.
The family tried to make a go of it in Jim’s mother’s home state of North Dakota, and then moved to Los Angeles to see what that might offer. But the story was always the same — living hand to mouth, and hoping there was something in the hand.
The only time Jim remembers discord in the family is when his mother threatened to leave Charles because of his weakness for playing the horses. Jim says he locked his mother in the bedroom until she relented on her threat. She apparently won, because Jim never heard another word about gambling.
He also remembers his father’s patriotism: low-key with no preaching, but when the flag passed on parade, his was the first hat over the heart.
In 2008, Jim was beginning to write an autobiography for his family when he happened to rummage through some yellowed papers left by his father. On one page, he read something his father had never mentioned: two Army citations for valor. What he read caused him to choke back his emotions …
“For extraordinary heroism in the attack near St. Etienne-aux-Arnes, France, Oct. 4, 1918: Wounded in the breast, 1st Lt. Thompson continued to lead his men in an attack on a strong machine-gun position until the enemy was destroyed. Wounded a second time, he refused to be evacuated until he had given his second-in-command careful instructions for the development of the attack.”
A second citation mentioned “gallantry in action” on the previous day.
The “extraordinary heroism” wording is the normal precursor to a Distinguished Service Cross, but that award was not followed up by the Army.
Jim applied to the Defense Department for the awarding of two Silver Star medals for his father, and they were quickly granted. The medals replaced a tiny “citation star” on Charles’ Victory Medal, the meaning of which had always been a mystery to Jim. (The Silver Star was first given in 1932 and included actions during World War I.)
Charles had also received the Croix de guerre (cross of war) medal from the French government for heroism.
After all those years, when Jim Thompson read the brittle pages that detailed his father’s heroism, his reaction was a high tribute.
He was not surprised.
Charles’ battlefield heroics were of the moment. His heroics as a loyal and loving rock of a man were of a lifetime.
Why so many willingly fought …
Our generation gap is never so wide as when celebrating patriotic holidays such as Memorial Day. Younger generations, while generally observing them, often do not understand the reverence for the flag of those who fought the wars and those who kept the home fires burning during World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
The late William Manchester explained the why of this in his insightful, brutal and personal memoir of the war in the Pacific, “Goodbye, Darkness.” Here is his explanation:
“… To fight in World War II you had to have been tempered and strengthened in the 1930s Depression by a struggle for survival — in 1940 two out of every five draftees had been rejected, most of them victims of malnutrition. And you had to know that your whole generation, unlike the Vietnam generation, was in this together ….
“You had to remember how your mother bought day-old bread and cut sheets lengthwise and resewed them to equalize wear while your father sold the family car so that you could enter college.
“You also needed nationalism, the absolute conviction that the United States was the envy of all nations, a country which had never done anything infamous, in which nothing was insuperable, whose ingenuity could solve anything by inventing something. You felt sure that all lands, given our democracy and our know-how, could shine as radiantly as we did.
“Esteem was personal, too; you assumed that if you came through this ordeal, you would age with dignity, respected as well as adored by your children. Wickedness was attributed to flaws in individual character, not to society’s shortcomings.
“To accept unemployment compensation, had it existed, would have been considered humiliating. So would committing a senile aunt to a nursing home. Instead, she was kept in the back bedroom, still a member of the family.
“Debt was ignoble. Courage was a virtue. Mothers were beloved, fathers obeyed. Marriage was a sacrament. Divorce was disgraceful. Pregnancy meant expulsion from school or dismissal from a job. The boys responsible for the crime of impregnation had to marry the girls. Couples did not keep house before they were married, and there could be no wedding until the girl’s father approved.
“You assumed that gentlemen always stood and removed their hats when a woman entered a room. The suggestion that some of them might resent being called “ladies” would have confounded you. You needed a precise relationship between the sexes so that no one questioned the duty of boys to cross the seas and fight while girls wrote them cheerful letters from home, girls you knew were still pure because they had let you touch them here but not there, explaining that they were saving themselves for marriage.
“All these and ‘God Bless America’ and Christmas or Hanukkah, and the certitude that victory in the war would assure their continuance into perpetuity — all this led you into battle, and sustained you as you fought, and comforted you if you fell, and, if it came to that, justified your death to all who loved you as you had loved them.”
(This excerpt is published with permission from Little, Brown & Co.)
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org