Two days after D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, my father, Marvin, turned 9. Though just a kid, he had been following the war lately with special interest as he knew it could have a personal impact on his immediate family.
That afternoon, his brother David, older by ten years, came home to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. David’s visits home from college were usually anticipated with happiness and excitement. However, this time was different, for David was not staying more than a night. Earlier in the month, Marvin learned that his only sibling, a student at Cornell University, had received a draft notice assigning him to join the 75th Infantry Division in Europe. To Marvin, it just didn’t seem real that after only months of completing the required ROTC training Dave was going to fight in the war abroad. To make matters worse, Marvin had fallen asleep early from all the commotion of David’s arrival and when he awoke he was emotionally tormented to discover that David had left before dawn, purposefully not wanting to wake his brother so early to say goodbye.
David’s infantry unit was known as “the Baby Division,” a diverse group of young men from all over the States, made up of some of the youngest serving in World War II. There, Dave would transform from a studious college student to a mortar scout within a matter of weeks, leading him to quickly move up the ranks to Staff Sergeant. In December of 1944, David and the rest of the Baby Division found themselves in the middle of a sudden counter-attack by the Germans through Belgium that would forever be known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” The attack was a near-complete surprise and as a result, Dave’s Division suffered heavy casualties. David suffered minor injuries, but survived. When David’s superior officer, Capt. Belding was in imminent danger, David risked his life and saved him.
That winter, a telegram arrived to the house in Sheepshead Bay. Fearing the worst, Marvin and his parents could barely open the envelope. To their relief, the Army was informing them that David had been awarded a Bronze medal for his bravery. His mother Dorothy looked up from the letter, shaking her head. “We don’t need a hero, we just need our son.” Marvin went about his day as any nine-year-old would (at least in that era), plotting out the location in Europe his brother might be fighting in next.
This past weekend on Memorial Day, I caught news of an attack by a gunman at the Jewish Museum in Belgium. Instantly, my mind drifted to thoughts of my Uncle David, who had fought valiantly in World War II. That morning over breakfast, I took the opportunity to tell the kids about Uncle David and his bravery during the war. “I think he even earned a Purple Heart for bravery!” I proudly stated. Following a long line of history buffs in our family, Ethan corrected me, “No, Mom. The Purple Heart is as long as they were injured during combat in a war.” Feeling small, I came back quickly with the fact that, regardless, I was certain that Dave had earned a medal for bravery in saving the life of his direct superior.
I called my Dad later to solicit his memories of David from those days. I asked him if he recalled needing to be strong for his parents given the circumstances back then, his reply was humble and honest. “Meg, not really. Although I know where you are trying to head with this, there wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about my behavior at the time. I was simply a kid that understood what was happening on one level, but didn’t appreciate its magnitude until years had passed.” He continued to describe his brother’s heroic efforts, of which we all remain enormously proud.
Although my father never served his country in combat, to me he deserves another kind of medal. As we celebrate his 79th birthday this week, it has occurred to me that in his own way, my father has more than risen to the occasion while raising me, a daughter born with a blatant physical difference. Let’s face it, my arrival was unchartered territory. Not only were my parents managing the shock of having a daughter with severe physical differences, they were living in Illinois, nowhere near their family in New York. Without the benefit of the Internet, social media, and all of the guidance available today, they relied on their common sense to raise me with as much independence and self-confidence as they could teach. My ‘pity parties’ were endured temporarily, and my father always encouraged me to swiftly move on, to look at the bright side and view my lot in life with confidence, grace and acceptance. There must have been countless times when he had to endure strangers staring or pointing at his very different child but he never appeared to let it bother him. Now as a parent of the same differences, I can appreciate the nights he and my mom must have worried about my future, especially early on. In raising me, my father (and mother) discovered how to face and overcome a different kind of fear.
I once read something that said, “Our lives are not determined by what happens to us but how we react to what happens; not by what life brings us but by the attitude we bring to our life.” I used to think that the Army’s slogan, “Be All You Can Be” was just about war heroes, like my Uncle David. Now I think the phrase applies more universally, including to people like my father, Marvin, the little brother of a courageous soldier who may never have set foot on enemy ground, but still got the chance to prove himself heroic, at least in my eyes.