Tags: Father's | Dog | Tag

My Father's Dog Tag

Monday, 23 June 2003 12:00 AM

June 15 was Father's Day, and the day before, I received a gift that I treasure from my father, who died when I was 19.

I was trying to close a drawer of my desk, but the drawer stuck, so I emptied it to see what was blocking it.

At the back I found a box I had forgotten about. It held old coins, and among the coins was another object. This one had no monetary value, but great significance.

It was my father’s World War I dog tag.

Unlike the current tags, it’s round. It carries only his name and serial number, 4898229, and the letters "U.S.A." It’s aluminum to resist corrosion. If the wearer were killed and had to be buried temporarily, the body could be identified for later reburial.

As a young man, my father worked nights as a cashier in a cafeteria while attending classes during the day. He hoped to attend medical school someday, a goal he later achieved. But his education was interrupted — some might say continued in another form — by war.

He served as a private in the infantry in France. He had some interesting experiences riding with his buddies in the famous "40/8" boxcars, which were intended to carry 40 men or 8 horses, preferably not in combination.

He finally got near enough the front lines to hear artillery, but fortunately the Armistice was signed before he went into combat. As Dad put it, "When the Kaiser heard I was over there, he gave up." My only mementos of his service are the dog tag and a photo of him in his high-collared uniform.

No, that’s wrong. Those are my only personal mementos. But I have many other reminders of what I owe him — and the millions of others, living and dead, who served our country.

First of all, there’s freedom. I can express myself any way I wish, either for or against the current administration. Unless I advocate violence, nobody will knock on my door.

I can own property or sell it. I can move or stay put. I can take a job or quit.

I can worship daily, or not at all, or change my religion. And so long as I’m a hard worker and a good neighbor, no one will bother me, or even notice.

I take for granted what my father left Europe as a teenager to achieve — freedom of conscience.

And my wife can also do these things. No one forces her to cover her face, or prevents her from driving a car, getting an education or practicing a profession.

Do we appreciate how unusual these gifts are, both now in the world, and in history? Do we know how lucky we are?

My father’s older brother remained in Europe. Like my father, he too got a serial number. But his number wasn’t stamped on a metal disc with the letters "U.S.A." His number was tattooed on his arm.

My father wound up a respected physician. There were many mourners at his funeral. His brother wound up in a gas chamber. He had no funeral. But it didn’t matter, because the potential mourners were probably dead, too.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here. Perhaps the divergent paths taken by my father and his brother exemplify the divergent paths taken by America and Europe.

My father struck out on his own, rejecting the past and with faith in the future. His brother stayed behind, looking back toward the past and doubtful of the future.

My father risked his life to preserve freedom, and he was proud to pass on his legacy to his son. His number remains as testimony to his resolve, stamped in metal.

His brother lost both his freedom and his life, and even his number vanished in a crematorium. Only his memory remains as evidence of what happens when an all-powerful state loses its moral compass. Those who advocate centralized government, and at the same time try to smash our moral compass, should think about this.

Of course, they won’t. They’re convinced they’re right. But so were the people who tattooed the number on my uncle’s arm.

They’re sure that good motives give them the right to reorder society to suit their "progressive" ideas. But so were the people who pushed my uncle into a gas chamber.

They’re positive that Judeo-Christian values are obsolete. But so were the people who shoved my uncle’s corpse into an oven.

And they’re confident that only the state — not the family or religion or the Boy Scouts — should have the power to educate young people and teach them values. But so were the people who scattered my uncle’s ashes.

Is this an exaggeration?

Note the strange bedfellows who agree that all the troubles in the Middle East, and perhaps the world, would end overnight if only Israel were destroyed.

Note the dissimilar groups that are coming together to favor the Muslim extremists who hate both America and Israel.

Note the diverse people who concur on only one point — that the world would be better off if the 5 million Jews in Israel disappeared.

Whenever I post an article supporting President Bush and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and whenever I condemn terrorists who blow to bits Israelis and American tourists in buses and pizzerias, I get nasty e-mails from three groups:

And they are filled with hate. The anti-Semites at least are open about it. The reactionaries try to conceal their hate by wrapping themselves in the past, while the leftists try to conceal their hate beneath the mantle of humanitarianism.

But they all are motivated by hate for the "others," rather than by love for their own people.

When I get hateful e-mails, now I can take out my father’s dog tag and feel the cool strength of its metal. I can look at his serial number and be reminded that it is the price of not being branded with another type of number. And I can say a profound "Thanks."

Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Number 4898229 from Number 05703196. I’m not in your league, but at least I know how precious freedom is, and who paid the price for it.

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June 15 was Father's Day, and the day before, I received a gift that I treasure from my father, who died when I was 19. I was trying to close a drawer of my desk, but the drawer stuck, so I emptied it to see what was blocking it. At the back I found a box I had forgotten...
Monday, 23 June 2003 12:00 AM
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