Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Letter to My Father

Capt. William Ashley Chapman, in a photo taken of him in Brazil in 1943, when he was twenty-three years old.

Dear Dad:

Happy Fourth of July! I know how patriotic you are: so this day has made me think about you a lot. I sure do miss you, Dad.

I was remembering this morning the story you told us about the time you were coming home from Ascension Island during World War II, where you had been serving with the 38th Engineers. The ship had to stop in Brazil to pick up a load of German POWs, the survivors of German ships that had been sunk or badly damaged in the Atlantic.

It made the trip longer, but you didn't mind too much because you loved being on the ocean journey. You said you enjoyed watching the dolphins that swam alongside and all the other interesting things a young man like you, from Birmingham, Alabama, had never seen before. You were lucky, too, because, unlike many of your friends, you never got seasick. At least not usually.

Your commanding officer put you in charge of organizing the prisoners' work detail in the ship's galley--I guess the Colonel had figured out one of the most telling things about you: how much you like food! So, you had to keep the German POWs from making trouble as they did their KP duty: not exactly the most fun job in the Army.

One night, the sea was especially rough. At chow, many of your fellow officers were dashing for the gunwales with green faces, while you finished several helpings of chicken paprika with potatoes on the side. You were sitting by yourself when the dessert of custard pudding was served. It tasted a little odd, but, hungry as ever, you dug in. Suddenly, you too were ill and headed for topside where, for the first time on the ship, you lost your dinner.

Ever the engineer, you thought it was curious. So you went back to the wardroom to look at the pudding. After a short investigation, you figured out that some enterprising POW in the galley had added soap flakes to your dessert. Ouch. It was probably because you were one of the few American officers they had met and they didn't like the sound of your Alabama accent. Or something.

I ought to make sure that guy gets in big trouble, was your first thought. This is a serious offense. And then you thought again and it occurred to you: he's already in big trouble. He's a German POW who has spent time swimming in the cold Atlantic and is far from his country and family. Stuck on an America ship headed for enemy territory. The war is over for him.

What is the right thing to do, you wondered. You weren't badly injured. Another order of chicken paprika and you'd be feeling swell again. And so, you decided to say nothing about it. And that is what you did.

When we were children, we always loved that story. Anticipating the part where you ate the soap-filled dessert and dashed for the side of the ship. Eeeeeeuuuuuu.

But now that I'm older I think the story is interesting in another way. Because what you did that day by doing nothing says everything about your character. You thought long and hard before taking an action that might hurt a more vulnerable human being at a time when you had all the power and he had none. And you realized that if his goal had been to see you squirm, the best thing to do was not to squirm. And that this would be punishment enough.

I wish I could be more like you. I wanted you to know that.

A couple more things I wanted to tell you: I brought the flag up today. I've had the flag here at the house at half staff for you since we lost you on March 26. But it is the Fourth of July and I thought it was time to bring it back up again. I hope that's okay. You always loved seeing the flag flying out there beyond our kitchen window.

Another thing: when we were having our garage sale a few weeks ago, we opened a mystery box and found the most beautiful little toy airplanes in it, planes that you had obviously made by hand. They were tucked away in a brown paper box on the shelf in the garage where you kept your chemistry and physics books.

The little fleet of planes.

They are made of tiny pieces of balsa wood with tissue paper wings, and they have the most interesting black-and-white-striped wing flaps. They are so elegant and precise and remind me so much of you, I've been thinking of making a mobile out of them to suspend somewhere in the house. Each time I look at them I imagine you as (very likely) an 80-year-old kid, laboring over them on your workbench in the garage while Mom sat inside watching Julia Child on PBS.

This morning, I took them outside so I could get a picture of your miniature squadron in the shade of the garden. And, as I set them down and arranged them in formation, the morning breeze caught their props and each tiny plane looked as if it were just about ready to take off! Their black propellers turned with increasing speed and it seemed they would all head down the runway and lift skyward together into the sunlit sky. To join you, perhaps, on your journey.

With all my love,


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someoneyouknow said...

I think it's the best thing you
have ever written....

Robin Chapman said...

Thank you for your touching comment. It is easy to speak to my father, because my heart is so full and I miss him so much.