I heard the door open in the middle of the night. Daddy was home! I had tried not to worry as my cousin poured out her fears earlier. My uncle, her dad, had recently returned from a year in Korea. The year was 1953. Not a good time to be in Korea for a military man. Although I was only ten year old, we had returned from Alaska the year before, and I remembered the air raids, the black-outs, and the fear when aircraft flew overhead. I knew my uncle drank to excess, but when my aunt and two cousins piled into the house, shaking and crying, I learned this was his worst display of violence ever. Mom’s sister had called her brother-in-law, my dad, the one who had introduced her to her husband years before. I lay in silence long after I heard my cousin’s even breathing, but I lay awake and listened for my daddy.
His footsteps didn’t come up the stairs as I expected. Instead, they turned into the kitchen. I heard cabinets open and the clatter of pots. When the refrigerator opened, I slid out of my bed so I wouldn’t disturb my cousin on the cot beside me. Creeping down the stairs, I peeped into the room and saw him butter a piece of toast and place it in a soup bowl. No need asking what was in the pan—he would pour hot milk over the toast. Looking at his pinched eyes, I knew he was fighting a devastating migraine, the kind that kept us tiptoeing around the house for hours, sometimes days, and my heart reached out to him.
I must have made a sound, because he looked up and smiled his gentle smile. “What are you doing awake, Chuckie?”
I made no reply but came over to stand beside him, not moving as he carefully poured the hot milk over his toast and carried it to the table. I scooted up to the table, not making a sound. The youngest of three girls, having him all to myself was a rare treat, and I didn’t want him to send me to bed.
I nodded, “Finally!” I told him mother had taken her sister into the den where she pulled out the sofa sleeper and they made the bed. I heard choking and weeping behind the door, but I was comforting my cousin, about a year and a half younger than me. She shook and cried for what seemed hours.
“I was afraid, Daddy. They said he was mean and throwing things. What took you so long?”
“I distracted him while they snuck out the back. When he heard the car leave, he was angry. I made coffee and we talked. It took a while to settle him down, but he was asleep when I left.”
I patted his arm. “I’m sorry about your headache.”
He grimaced a slight smile. “Comes with challenges like that. We need to talk to your Aunt Betty before he hurts her or the children. No one should live with a man like that.”
“He had a sad childhood, Daddy. His step-mother was cruel to him.”
“And he was in World War Two. He saw awful things.”
“He was. So was I. You were two when I got home. The first time you saw me, you told me to get my hands off your mother.” He shook his head with a smile. “My little girl.” Tears tugged at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Daddy! I love you.”
“I know,” he replied.
I sighed. I was the tender-hearted child who picked up every stray, feeding birds that fell from their nests and lost cats until we found their owner—the original bleeding heart. I launched into a defense of my “poor uncle.”
Daddy pushed his empty bowl back and held out his arms. I snuggled into his embrace, my favorite place in the whole world. “May I tell you another story, about another little boy?” In the quiet of the night, enfolded in his arms, I nodded happily.
“This little boy’s mother died when he was only nine years old—younger than you. His loneliness started when he sat in the hall outside her bedroom and listened to her die. For a while he lived with his mother’s brother, but when his wife left him, his uncle put him on a train to another town. It was Christmas Eve. He father had been broken-hearted over his mother’s death, and he worked away on the railroad, so he didn’t spend any time with the little boy. When the train stopped at the station where he would get off, the boy picked up his battered suitcase and hauled it down the aisle. The conductor helped him off and asked if anyone was there for him, but he didn’t know. A girl a couple of years older than he waved from the platform and asked who he was. He told her, and she said she was the daughter of the lady who ran the boarding house where his father stayed whenever he was in town. He wasn’t in town, and she didn’t know when he would be back, but she took him to where his father stayed. He sat on the empty bed in the empty room all through Christmas Day.
The little boy lived in that town until he finished high school, but his father was gone most of the time. He went to school, and after school he walked to the library. Soon he got a job at the local diner. He left school early in fourth period, walked to the diner, and washed dishes. Sometimes the best food he had all day was what was left on those plates! He returned to school late for fifth period, but he never got in trouble at school.
I wiggled a bit. This story was beginning to sound familiar.
“In high school, the boy played every sport the school offered, and after school he went to the YMCA until it closed. One afternoon, his coach asked him if he would like to live with his family. I’m sure the boy’s eyes got wide, for who would want a stray kid? The coach helped him pick up his belongings at the boarding house and took him home. His wife didn’t seem surprised. They had small children, but she had a cot made up in the kitchen by the stove. And there he lived his entire senior year of high school.”
“Did you go to West Point then?”
Daddy smiled. “You figured it out. No, I was only fifteen when I finished everything that high school had to offer, and I went to the University of Wisconsin on a football scholarship. The next summer when Dad was in town, he asked what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to go to the military academy and serve my country. The only government official he knew was the postmaster, who happened to know the local congressman and knew his appointment to West Point had dropped out, so that’s how I got to West Point. West Point became my first home. I had three square meals a day, a nice warm room and a bed.”
He turned me around to face him and looked in my eyes, which dared not waver. Then he continued, “I will always remember that coach, and I will never forget that lonely boy. I made up my mind then no matter what happened, if God gave me a child, I would never leave that child. I would be the best father I could be. I would support her, care for her, and give her the best I would have in my power to give.” He paused, making sure I heard the words he prepared to say. “Never forget, Chuck, sometimes people’s excuses are other people’s reasons.”
And that became the philosophy of my life.
This is a biographical story. I was ten years old at the time.