(Years ago, I wrote this story about an Army reunion I attended with my Dad, which got published on the 3rd Armored Division’s website. Today would have been Hap Paulson’s 95th birthday, so I’d like to repeat it in his honor.)
This year, for the second year in a row, I went with my dad to his Spearhead 3rd Armored Division, Army Reunion. Last year we went to Indianapolis and had a lighthearted romp in the nation’s heartland. This year the reunion was held in the nation’s capital. So Dad and I spent the last five days together in Washington, D.C. This year it was murder.
Fortunately, the murder was only on the stage in Shear Madness, a delightful murder mystery play we attended on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The audience, contrary to what I expected, consisted not of Washington elite, but of the group of WW II Vets I was with, and two large groups of high-school students. The students thoroughly enjoyed the interactive portion of the show where they helped “solve” the murder, and the seniors thoroughly enjoyed watching the youngsters have fun. Everyone got a kick out of how the actors worked the 3rd Armored Division and both High School names into the plot. I liked the rockin’ soundtrack, so I’m sure my father didn’t. At least now, he’s no longer yelling for the damn music to be turned down, like he used to when I was a teenager. Nowadays, he’s hi-tech. With the flick of one switch, he can turn both his hearing aids off.
That morning, before the show, we had taken the Monument Tour. Our guide was Kenny. The first stop on the tour was the Marine Memorial, with that famous sculpture of the Servicemen raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The monument is inscribed with the years and innumerable battles the marines have fought all over the world since 1775. This list went on and on and on. Back on the bus, I turned to my father and said, “I knew that the Navy and the Marines didn’t get along, but it looks like Marines don’t get along with anyone.”
We spent the whole week the same way, sharing memories at the memorials and trading barbs on the bus.
The next stop was the Vietnam Memorial. Upon arrival, I announced with pride to the bus of grisly veterans that “This was my war – the one I fought to try and get out of.”
Thousands of names are carved in the marble chronologically representing each one of the killed and M.I.A. from the Vietnam conflict. The morning was rainy and bleak, and the memorial looked bleak, too. To me, it looked like the headstone for a mass grave. It was kind of creepy. I noticed that John Anderson was the first name scratched into the stone. I was going to go to the far end of the monument to see who the last name was when I thought of the poem by John Donne. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” Then I noticed a woman with a little slip of paper making one of those pencil shading pictures of the name etched in stone below where she had placed the paper. The two volunteers who had helped her find the section of the monument where the name she sought was carved, stood quietly behind her as she made the shading. When she was finished she got up and hugged both of them. As the woman walked away, there were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling too, and the same thing was going on with the two volunteers. Even though this had to be at least the thousandth time they had helped somebody find a name on the wall, they were still touched by every one of them. I was touched, too.
There were no assigned seats on any of the tour buses, but people invariably would return to the same exact seat after every memorial stop. On the Arlington Cemetery tour I boarded very late. The tour began just after breakfast one morning and my father figured I had probably gone back to bed. He knows I’m not fond of cemeteries, so he got on the bus by himself. By the time I showed up, somebody was already sitting next to my father, so I took an empty seat in the back. After the first stop on the tour, I switched to the seat next to my father. This shift was noticed by one of the ladies, who, just for conversation sake, asked me why I decided to switch seats.”
“Rosa Parks says I don’t have to sit in the back of the bus, anymore” I joked, knowing from previous experience that my father would use the opportunity to talk about the two African-American boys my brother Kevin adopted.
“That’s right,” my Dad said as he proudly pulled out his wallet to show her pictures of his two “colored” grandchildren. “We be black now, so we can sit anyplace on the bus that we want.”
“They’re beautiful children,” the lady said smiling approvingly at the pictures, “and I don’t see any color at all.”
“I know how it is,” Dad replied. “My eyes aren’t so good anymore, either.”
I’m not sure if she knew he was joking.
Shelley the Guide on that tour was super. She was more than super. She was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Many Washington Tour Guides resemble Mary Poppins with their brightly colored umbrellas leading a pack of tourists around. Whenever it was time to get back on the tour bus, Shelley and her big yellow umbrella would suddenly appear. Washington Tour-Group guides must have to work extra hard to keep track of everybody on rainy days, when everyone has an umbrella.
Our drivers on a couple of the bus tours we took were two black guys named Roscoe and Rodney. I’m not making that up. It was straight out of central casting. I kept asking them to please drive by Dupont Circle, which is mentioned in one of my favorite movies, The American President. They did their best to ignore me.
Shelley couldn’t ignore us though. It was her job to work the crowd. One of the things Shelley liked to do was test our knowledge of Washington, D.C. trivia What my dad and I liked to do was test her patience.
“On your right is The White House. Can anyone tell me who is the only U.S. President who never lived there?”
“Al Gore,” I shouted.
We were like Charlie Weaver and Paul Lynd on the old Hollywood Squares TV Show. Even if we knew the correct answer to one of Shelley’s trivia questions, we wouldn’t answer until we could first come up with a joke answer.
One part of the FDR memorial was a just a pile of great big rocks. I asked Shelley if that was the Marriage Memorial.
“Washington D.C.,” Shelley said, “was built on a swamp and occasionally we have had some flooding. Does anyone know the elevation of Washington D.C.?”
“Lower than pond scum.”
On the right is the Pentagon. Donald Rumsfeld has his office here.
“Stop the bus, and give me a rock,” my Dad yelled out.
On Monday, our tour stopped for lunch at the Pentagon Fashion Center. How’s that for an oxymoron? Pentagon Fashion. Even more interesting was one of the t-shirts they were selling in this mall, just a stone’s throw from the Pentagon. It said:
Tank of Gas: $100
Prescription Refill: $500
Iraq War: $300,000,000,000
New President in 2008: Priceless.
I also found it amusing that each famous place on the tour seemed linked to an equally infamous one.
“On the left is the Jefferson Memorial. On the right is the Tidal Basin where in the 1970’s House power-broker Wilbur Mills was caught cavorting with Fanne Foxe, the Argentine Firecracker.”
There are memorials everywhere you go. While we were there, construction was just finishing up on The Air Force Memorial, which we could see clearly from our hotel window. There must have been at least 50 different Memorials in a town that’s notorious for people who can never, ever, remember anything, especially if they’re under oath.
Many things in Washington are etched in stone, and I don’t mean that figuratively. Unlike New York, where the words of the prophets are written on subway walls, in Washington they’re etched in stone all over the place. The most brilliant statements made by some of the greatest leaders the country ever had are carved into the walls, where you can not only see them but touch them. It’s just a shame that only the tourists are reading them.
On one tour, I learned that Smithson was an English metallurgist who made a fortune on zinc oxide or something like that. He wanted a title and a castle, but because he was illegitimate he wasn’t able to marry a woman of title in England. To spite them, he gave his entire fortune to America, which was how the Smithsonian Museum began. The architect designed one of the Smithsonian buildings to look like a castle in his honor.
Extraordinary coincidence #1. On the same weekend, in the same hotel, having their reunion was the airborne squadron that my father claims accidentally strafed the 3rd Armored Division when they broke through into Germany, because they didn’t think there could possibly be any Americans in Germany, yet. The Army denies that this ever happened. I believe my father.
At the men’s luncheon, we watched a German version of the 3rd Armored Division’s Battle of Cologne. I couldn’t help but think that there probably wasn’t an English version of the film because there simply wasn’t enough profit in the project for an American company to make the movie.
On Saturday, the tour stopped at Union Station for lunch. I was in the Mall and looking all around., because I couldn’t believe that there actually was a train station in America that didn’t have a McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or KFC. There must be a secret war on Transfats going on in Washington.
“Did you lose something?” an inquisitive cop said to me, as he saw my eyes gazing around the mall.
“Well, my dad wandered off!” I told him.
“What’s he like?” the cop asked.
“Bourbon, playing cards, and dancing,” I said, “but don’t help me look for him; I’m actually hiding.”
Whenever we asked Dad the question, “Where should I sit?” my father always gave us the same riddle answer, “Sit where your mother sat when she got married.” It took us kids years to figure out that he just meant, sit on your ass; I don’t care where. When we went up the stairs at the Lincoln Memorial, he told me that when she was young, my mother had actually climbed up the statue of Lincoln in the chair and sat on his lap. I couldn’t help but think, “Gosh, my mother was actually young once, too. Wow!’ Seeing how high up Lincoln’s chair was, I also realized that to sit where my mother sat, she sometimes needed a boost. Don’t we all?
I offered to give my dad a boost if he wanted to “sit where my mother sat,” but he declined my generous offer.
At the FDR Memorial, Dad told me that my mother had once written to Eleanor Roosevelt inviting the First Lady to her graduation from Nursing School and Mrs. Roosevelt actually showed up.
My father and I really enjoyed one another’s company this past week, but I had an ace up my sleeve. Any time Dad busted my horns I said, “Be good, or we’re sending Kevin and his kids with you next year.”
At the World War II Memorial, the highlight of the tour for mostly everyone on the bus, the names of all the States of the Union are carved into sections of the stone. People get their pictures taken by the names of their state. My father heckled the people from the tiny states, whenever they would stand up to have their picture taken. “I didn’t know that they had any people in New Hampshire”
When our tour bus got to Arlington National Cemetery, we hopped on a trolley car that took us to all the high points of interest. Our tour guide Shelley had to take a back seat to an official Arlington Cemetery Tour Guide, so it was very informative, but he didn’t know the particulars about the group he was leading. I noticed that we went right past the 3rd Armored section of the Cemetery without a word mentioned about it.
At Arlington we went to the grave of John Kennedy, which is at the bottom of a hill. Robert E. Lee’s House was at the top of that hill, and, according to our guide, the view was spectacular. He said that when John Kennedy was standing on that hill, he had remarked to Jacqueline that he could spend eternity there. That’s why, after his death, the family had him buried there. Our tour guide assured us that he would take us up to the Lee House later in the tour. (But we drove by the back of the house, so we didn’t see any of the amazing view that Kennedy loved.)
I did pick up the best bargain of the tour at Arlington, though. There was a guy in the parking lot selling 10 photo postcards for a buck. I wondered how long a prison term you would get for sending the Arlington Cemetery postcard to President Bush or Dick Cheney and writing “Wish you were here” on it. I also wondered whose name I would forge on the postcard if I ever did that.
Shelley pointed out that the two Senate Office Buildings were officially named recently in an effort to get people to stop referring to them as the Old SOB and the New SOB.
“Is everyone ready to get back on the bus?” Shelley said.
“Hold up a minute, I’ve got to pay a visit to the Wang Memorial.”
Vic Damon, the 3rd Armored Division’s Webmaster, was one of the guest speakers at the final dinner. As a computer geek, he did not appear to be comfortable in the limelight of public speaking, but he sure knew a ton of facts about the 3rd Armored Division. Not only had he read the thousands of tales submitted to the website by hundreds of people, but he had personally researched and visited some of the places of interest. He even had pictures of the Connecticut house where the Division’s leader General Rose was born, and an aerial view of the spot where the beloved general was ambushed by the Germans and murdered. After years of posting all these stories on the Internet and visiting the archives, Vic couldn’t stop thinking of interesting stories related to the main story he was trying to tell. “One last thing, before I get back to my last thing” was an oft repeated line. I guarantee that if you go to the website, you will be fascinated by the thousands of articles, photos, and first-hand accounts of the war. (www.3AD.com)
General Rose’s great great nephew was there to speak about his great great uncle, and wound up very diplomatically giving the praise to the great great troops General Rose had to lead. That got a round of applause and numerous campaign pledges if the young man should ever want to run for public office.
I don’t want to mislead you. This may be a reunion for WW II veterans, but there are a lot of younger people there, too. Most of them are the sons and daughters who either join their parent or who come in honor of a deceased parent. The youngest person at this year’s convention was Jordan, the granddaughter of the 2006 Association President, Bill Heinz. Every one of us wished that we had her energy. She danced. She sang with the band. She led the group twice in the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. The little girl had so much energy, she made the Eveready Bunny look like a narcoleptic.
One last thing, before I get to my last thing.
There was another incident one night on the tour bus that I was going to omit from this story, but I think that you’re bound to hear it elsewhere, anyway so I might as well tell it here first.
On our way back from the Kennedy Center, an elderly woman went up to the driver and said, “I’ve just been molested!”
The driver felt that she must have fallen asleep and had a dream. So he told her to go back to her seat, and sit down.
A short time later, another old woman claimed that she was just molested. The driver knew he had a bus load of old soldiers, but doubted if anyone could possibly be molesting these two old ladies?
About 10 minutes later, a third old lady went up and said that she too had been molested.
The bus driver decided that he’d had enough, and pulled into the first rest area. When he turned the lights on and stood up, there was an old man on his hands and knees crawling in the aisles.
“Hey pops, what are you doing down there? ” the bus driver demanded.
“I lost my toupee,” he said. “I thought I found it three different times, but every time I tried to grab it, it ran away!”
Another last thing before I get to my last thing. This one is serious.
After visiting the front lines in WW I, FDR said, “I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line – the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”
And yet he wound up leading the country through World War II.
One generation fights a war so that their children will not have to go to war, but war still does not skip a generation. The men and women in World War II were there because the “War to end all wars,” which their fathers fought, didn’t end all wars. Neither did their war end war. In the 60 years since World War II ended, we’ve had Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Persian Gulf 1 & 2, and Granada, to name a few. War gets passed along from generation to generation similar to child abuse. It’s a vicious cycle. Abuse breeds abuse. War breeds war.
I’d like to see one last memorial in Washington, D.C., The War Itself Memorial, a stone to commemorate the death of war. A monument to the day the world learned to live in peace. Make it out of wood, and we, the living, could all go carve our own names on it. Then, the sacrifices made by all the people in previous wars, will finally stop being in vain.
While I gazed on the rows and rows of Graves in Arlington Cemetery. I couldn’t help but think of these words by Bob Dylan:
How many times must a man look up Before he can see the sky? Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows That too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
By virtue of the power of the 3AD Webmaster, and by outliving so many of the other guys from World War II, my father has become the poet laureate of the 3rd Armored Division. The poems he wrote about his army career were collected into a book called Dogface Doggerel. Many of those poems are freely available for all to read on the aforementioned http://www.3AD.com website. After the past weekend, Dad too was nudged by the muse and he decided to put his feelings down in a poem. In extraordinary coincidence #2, it turns out that my father and I did something this week that we tried desperately not to do in the past. We agreed on something. He, too, felt that there should be another memorial in our nation’s capital. He actually felt we needed two more. Here is the poem he wrote to explain why.
WE NEED A NEW MEMORIAL
By Harold A. “HAP” Paulson
I just returned from our reunion,
In Washington, D.C.
It’s a city full of memorials,
To honor folks like you and me.
Tribute is paid to the Air Force,
The Seabees and the Marines.
Vets from the war in Korea,
Vietnam and other scenes.
We honor the women who went to war,
And those who stayed behind,
And the National cemetery at Arlington,
Is a reminder for all mankind.
Please don’t think we have enough now,
I’d like to add two more,
To the paraplegics, the blind, the lame,
All those invalids from the war.
I’d place one on the White House lawn,
And one on Capitol Hill,
A gruesome reminder to politicos
Of those men still paying the bill.
It would have a wheelchair and crutches,
A cane for those who are blind,
A hospital bed from a burn unit
And orthopedics of every kind.
I’d place one so that the PRESIDENT,
When he arose each morn,
Would get a reminder from it,
Of the load these men have borne.
And the one up at the Capitol,
As an inscription would have this plea,
“The next time you declare war,
Enlist yourselves, but don’t send me.”
One more last thing, before I get to my last thing.
Studies have shown that more people die in the months just after their birthday than in the months just prior to their birthday. The hypothesis is that looking forward to something helps you keep living. As we get older, and birthdays are less anticipated, maybe we might live longer if we are looking forward to some other things, such as Reunions or Anniversaries (Well, maybe not in all cases, but in some). My dad was the only member of his 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion healthy and young enough to make it to the Spearhead reunion, and I know it is because every year he looks forward to spending a few pleasant days with the gang who went slogging through hell with him. Now I have something great to look forward to, also, next year’s reunion in Louisville, Kentucky. I’m hoping to bring back some souvenirs from Fort Knox.
(My Dad wasn’t physically able to make any more reunions, but I hope his spirit is. Happy Birthday Dad.)
Peace and Love, and all of the above,