War will always bring death. But courage will always bring honor.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918, representatives of France, Britain, the United States, Canada and Germany gathered in Compiègne, France, to sign the armistice to end the conflict that had been called “the war to end all wars.” For almost 20 years, nations celebrated this day as Armistice Day, a time to recall the ravages of war and the soldiers who sacrificed so that we might have peace.
But that peace did not last, and another world war was fought. When that ended, the Americans chose to rename the day Veterans Day, and the Europeans chose to call it Remembrance Day.
I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who traveled to Pennsylvania to consecrate a cemetery on the site of a battlefield named Gettysburg. As he stood before the gravestones he said, “We have come to dedicate a portion of that battlefield as a final resting place … but in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Let me tell you about one hero. My father, Harold Aloysius Paulson (Hap), was a soldier in World War II. He fought with the 3rd Armored Division under Patton. He landed in Normandy on D-Day. Hap outmaneuvered Panzers in the Battle of the Bulge. He himself shot the lock off the gate of a concentration camp. My father was a hero.
My father brought his courage back to Queens, where he took a job with the phone company, married a nurse and fathered three boys. Hap volunteered as a Scoutmaster, a Pioneer, a Knight of Columbus and for St. Anthony of Padua Church. A few months ago, right before he died, he said to me, “Kevin, remember me as a soldier. But also remember me as a man who cherished peace.”
My father raised a sailor, a teacher and a peace officer. I’ve never served in the armed forces; in fact, my patriotism is different. I’ve protested against wars and government, but when I did so, I tried to act with the courage that Hap taught me.
Now that I have sons of my own, I doubt that my accomplishments measure up to Hap’s. Being captain of the math team at Molloy High School or doing the best Bette Davis impression in the outer, outer, outer Excelsior just doesn’t compare.
The year before he died, my father taught me that heroes are not only brave, but kind. In his 90s, Hap suffered from macular degeneration, so he couldn’t see very well, and he also had congestive heart failure, but he still flew to California for his youngest grandson’s adoption and baptism.
He brought a gift. He had paid his neighbor to thread needles so that he could sew a Christmas stocking for Aidan. This nearly blind man stayed up night after night, piecing together a stocking, as he had done for his wife, for each of his three sons, his other grandchildren and even the dog. He was not going to let his biracial, drug-exposed, fost-adopted grandson feel left out.
Heroes make sacrifices. Hap never went to college himself, but he paid for all three of his sons’ schooling. He climbed up telephone poles 12 hours a day so that Brother X could have a bicycle, I could have bell bottoms, or Brother Not X could have bail money.
Sitting in his tank, in those rare minutes of peace, Hap wrote verses about the war and, in fact, became the poet laureate of the 3rd Armored Division. On the 15th anniversary of the liberation of Europe, cities in Northern Europe invited Hap and his Army comrades back to see plaques placed in each town. And my father, paraphrasing Lincoln, wrote:
“The land was hallowed, dedicated,
By those of our comrades who fell,
And now lie under crosses
In France, and Henri-La-Chappelle.
There can be no greater memorial.
Than those we left behind.”
Not sure I ever thanked Hap for losing his hearing under mortar fire or eating chipped beef on toast or watching his best buddy die. Here is the responsibility he left: I must teach my own sons to be brave.
Make this Friday a day of remembrance. More than 2 million veterans live in California, and odds are you know one. Take a moment to thank that hero.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published as War hero dad inspired different kinds of courage by the San Fransisco Chronicle and is re-published with permission here