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The trouble with Dad

By Alma Barkman


Hanging on a nail in the hallway of our farmhouse was a khaki bag with a red cross on it. One day when Dad was out in the field, Mom let me empty out the contents of the bag and told me about them. There was a picture of a young man in army clothes that she claimed was Dad, but I couldn't recognize him in that First World War uniform. All I had ever seen him wear were his striped bib overalls and plaid flannel shirts.

Also in the bag were a few bullets, and a knife and a fork with one tine missing. A black booklet had his regimental number and name in it, the creased pages officially stamped by the Department of Defence. One tarnished shoulder badge said "Canada" on it. The other was in the shape of two crossed rifles.

I fingered the items with curiosity, especially a small photo showing lines and lines of wounded soldiers lying in an open field in France. At one point my father must have lain among them when a piece of shrapnel severed two fingers of his left hand. I never asked him about being wounded. You didn't ask Dad much of anything, and certainly not about the war.

Oh, sometimes when a drink or two loosened his tongue, he and a neighbour man who had also been in the forces would start to reminisce about the rats in the trenches, the lice underneath their putties that drove them crazy, the scream of the cavalry horses among the din of battle, and army rations so awful they either chose hunger or stripped the food supplies from the slain. I learned very early never to approach Dad quietly from behind. I forgot just once, and the hammer he was using at his workbench came hurtling toward me. I ducked, and then fled back to the house in terror.

Shellshock - my mother explained - involuntary reaction to any unexpected noise or movement. Thereafter I always made a point of coughing or shuffling my feet or singing whenever I approached him, especially from behind.

And I tried not to approach him unless it was absolutely necessary. He seemed incapable of demonstrating any affection, of identifying with any of my emotions. Never once did I ever hug him or sit on his knee. I had a hunch such overtures, if not rejected, would certainly not be reciprocated.

As I grew older, I often wondered why, indeed, complained, that Dad was the way he was, but I regretted it only from the selfish standpoint of a teenager who wanted a loving, affectionate father like others had.

My mother defended him to the last. Sometimes I begrudgingly saw her unfailing devotion as an admirable trait, at other times, blind devotion to a man who was not at all like the one she married. She told me as much herself, years later. We happened to be discussing what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, how severe trauma can forever change a person's outlook, personality, even values.

"Just think of your dad," she said. "He was never the same after the war. The emotional pain he suffered was so great he built up a wall that nobody could penetrate. Rather than risk losing the ones close to him, he chose to keep us at a distance. All I could do was try to understand."

That's where I had failed.

I had failed to see those emotional wounds he suffered, and the permanent scars he bore as a result.

Forgiveness did not come quickly, but year by year it seemed to settle into my soul as each Nov. 11 the haunting sound of a bugle played Last Post from the war memorial in Ottawa. After the ceremony, when the television showed jerky footage of soldiers in the trenches of the First World War, I would often wonder if my father was among them. As I watched those youthful faces contorted in misery, my resentment toward him was slowly replaced by deep gratitude for the sacrifice he had made, and for which I had never thanked him, not once.

The only public recognition for military service he ever received was at his funeral, when a local lad in dress uniform marched up to his open coffin and smartly saluted the old soldier lying there. Beyond that, nothing was ever said.

That's how he wanted it. He had made it plain that from his perspective, war held enough bad memories without being triggered by 21-gun salutes.

Years later, while hurrying out of a supermarket one November day, I saw a frail old Second World War veteran selling poppies, his wrinkled hands blue with cold. He was small man, about the size of my dad, with those same steely blue eyes. I stopped and put down my bags of groceries.

"That's a miserable day," I said, trying to make small talk as I rummaged around in my purse for some coins.

The old veteran didn't respond.

I dropped a coin into his box and pinned a poppy to my lapel. And then, very deliberately, I took his withered veined hand in mine and looking him straight in the eye, I said, "Thank you for what you did for us in the war. Thank you."

He never said a word, but tears escaped those steel blue eyes and trickled down the creases of his face.

Just a sincere word of gratitude, but it had penetrated the wall that toughened old soldier had erected in defence of his emotions.

For him it may have felt like defeat.

For me it was a bittersweet victory, for at long last I could forgive my father for something for which he was not to blame in the first place - post traumatic stress disorder.

Having failed to recognize the symptoms, neither had I understood his suffering. He was the one who went to war, but I am the one who is now at peace.

Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg (