Going home

My father left high school early for the U.S. Army, six months before Pearl Harbor. Any 17-year-old could see what was coming, and if you signed up early, you could pick your service.

None of the seven Galloway brothers were born in this country. Nonetheless, four would scatter themselves across the globe during World War II, wearing the insignia of their adopted home.

Their disappearance to parts unknown was a community event, creating a hole among their neighbors that we can no longer comprehend. To mark the vanishing of his own sons and so many others, my woodcarving grandfather fashioned a large wall piece with the names of more than a thousand boys from Garfield Heights High School who would go off to war. It still hangs there.

The cartoonist Bill Mauldin was something of a hero to Dad. He was the only one of the brothers to keep a sketch book. The title: “Travel! Adventure! And Spam!!” When the sketch book wasn’t handy, lined notebook paper would do. Above is a rescued drawing from Dad’s return trip in ‘45. That lump in the background is the Rock of Gibraltar.

In the upper right-hand corner are traces of a laundry list written on the other side — a brief catalog of one young warrior’s requirements for conquering the world: Four undershirts, four shorts, two handkerchiefs, two dress shirts, four pairs of socks, and two coveralls.

Dad seldom talked about his adventure. But he once told me that he had a vague memory, shortly after he finally docked at home, of running up and down the hall of a hotel in the wee hours -- drunk, liberated, and screaming "God damn the colonel!" at the top of his lungs. This from a future elder of the Red Oak, Ga., Christian Church.

If I were a betting man, I would name Nov. 25, 1945 as the date of that celebration. That was the day of his discharge, and the day before his birthday. He had spent four years, five months and 14 days in uniform, traveled half-way around the world and back, and hadn’t yet turned 22.

As wars go, Dad had a good one. Grandfather was never forced to place a star by any of his sons’ names on the wall piece in that Ohio high school, but his work contained one flaw. It named the year that the war started for the United States: 1941. Yet no one could say when the conflict would finish. So the woodcarver affixed an end date of "194-". And never went back to adjust it.

What was once an oversight has since become a philosophical truth. For those drawn into them, wars don't come with expiration dates.

Before he died, we moved Dad to California, to a place just east of Los Angeles. Shortly after his arrival, he pointed my sister to the distant shaded hills. The Atlas Mountains, Dad declared.

It is the San Gabriel range that skirts the City of Angels. The Atlas Mountains stretch across the top of northwest Africa -- spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. They stand opposite the Rock of Gibraltar.

Yet perhaps because he was so young and malleable, Dad never allowed war to define him. He slipped away at age 90, the last of the original Galloway boys.

Not long afterwards, an art teacher sent along a  copy of one last sketch he had managed, a ragged self-portrait. He was a boy with a pencil in his hand before his war, and he emerged from it with the pencil still in his fist. Which is something to say grace over.

Have a thoughtful Veterans Day.