My Father’s Gifts

by Doug Magill

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love.  You have to deserve your father’s.  Robert Frost

It is Easter, and it is also the 100th anniversary of my Father’s birth.  The juxtaposition of the two is a solemn reminder of what I owe to those that I call Father: God for the birth and death of his Son, and to Dad, for all that he has given me.

It is hard to imagine Dad as 100, both because it is not the memory I have of him, nor the image.  As I grow older, the image seems to loom larger.  My own mortality seems to be growing larger behind me, and I have deeper thoughts these days about what I have been given, and what I have in turn bequeathed to those who follow me.

My oldest son and his wife are recent parents.  It is an amazing thing to become a grandfather, and its place among the hallowed moments of life is a blessing, and a clarion call to look at what has been provided and shared.

My father wasn’t big on gifts, though he did surprise me upon occasion with something special, and thoughtful.  As I write this there is a cabinet in my office he unexpectedly gave me to house the radio and music equipment I was either building or repairing in my nerd days when I was young.  He loved that I could do things with electronics that he couldn’t fathom,.  It reminds me of him every day.

Yet, the most important gifts are those that have no place, but yet an enormous presence in our lives.

Dad grew up poor, in the outlands of Indiana.  One of those places the sneering classes along our coasts fly over regularly without a thought of who those sturdy, hard-working and essential people are.  His parents went broke in the Great Depression and he had to live with relatives.  An embarrassment that stung him till his last days.  If one could guess where his drive, ambition to succeed and pragmatism came from it is that place and that searing shame.

He worked his way through college and then law school.  It is astonishing to think that he believed that a poor man’s son from Indiana could go to, and thrive at Harvard Law School.  Yet, he believed, and though he had to borrow money to make it work he graduated with honors and a belief that he could make a difference.  In those days there were not a lot of young men from Indiana at such places.

My father found employment at a bank and felt that would provide him a secure future. World War II intervened, and he felt the call of duty to his country.  He knew so little about the Navy, having never been in anything larger than a rowboat,  that he went to a recruiter hoping to be a petty officer.  The recruiter was astonished and convinced him that with a law degree the Navy could use him as an officer.  So, without training and little more than the Bluejacket’s Manual he was sent to Hawaii to serve in Naval Intelligence.

He later served in combat as Director of Fighter Operations aboard an aircraft carrier, learning to become Officer of the Deck during sea operations.  Something that amused him greatly given his lack of any previous maritime experience.

His career took him to a bank, then the Treasury department and eventually to General Motors.  He was a liberal then, I suppose, as he wasn’t sure he wanted to work for a corporation and be told what kind of car to drive.  As he rose in the hierarchy of GM he learned about politics and government, and became more conservative as he was exposed to the often corrupt connections between unions, government and the hypocrisy of politicians who espoused sympathy and altruism while mainly benefiting themselves.

Somewhere early in his life  he learned to be objective and steely-eyed about people, and developed an ability to work with those around him, no matter who they might be.  He never made racial jokes and believed, as perhaps only a failed farmer’s son could, that most people wanted to work and thrive, and the rest didn’t matter much.

He was tasked with forming the first organization in any major corporation focused on dealing with the ever -increasing power and regulation of government.  He called it Industry-Government Relations and it is common today, though many companies now follow practices he first established.

As his responsibilities grew, so did his department.  He hired a young executive to manage urban affairs – the relationship between GM and city and local governments. This young man also happened to be black and was one of the first minority executives in the auto industry.

In those days the GM building was across the street from the Fisher Building, and through an underground tunnel most GM execs would walk to lunch at an exclusive club in that building.  They would also hold events there and used it for special meetings.

Unfortunately that club didn’t allow minority members.  My father was astonished, annoyed and then angry.  He went – without authorization – to the board of the club and demanded that they admit his young executive or he would withdraw all GM business from the club.  GM was the majority of its customers, and they knew that they would be out of business if they didn’t have GM members.  They relented, and my father’s protege became the first minority member of that club, and indeed of just about any club in Detroit in those days.

Dad didn’t often talk about his role in things, or why this moment was so important.  He believed with every fiber of his being that a black man trying to make his way in business deserved the same consideration as any other young man.

Attitude and actions, he would tell me, are what really defines you as a man, and as a leader.  He didn’t preach about equality, or about minorities or about any career issues related to race or any of the other identity-politics buzzwords popular today.  His view was simple and direct: if you wanted to work hard, learn and grow, you deserved an opportunity.

My family grew up with that.  It was so much more effective than preaching and histrionics and fake anger that my siblings and I inculcated it without thinking or worrying about it.

That gift of seeing people as they are, without labels and adjectives and the panoply of mystic prisms that we are being told these days to evaluate people by is a gift.  A priceless one, and the source of great pride and honor among friends.

It has always been with me – this ability to see people for who they are.  I learned it well. There are many examples, but I recall one young manager who worked for me being dumbfounded that, after working for me for years, I didn’t realize he was Jewish.

More recently, I was blessed to be on a radio show with several friends: two gifted young men and a young woman.  I was the DOWG – the Designated Old White Guy – who didn’t know much about current musical trends and taste.  My proclamations, questions and confusion made for much hilarity among my partners on air, yet it made for good radio.

I am especially proud that we would occasionally get calls from middle-aged black people talking about that “cool white dude” and how he was the only non-racist Republican they knew.

There are many things that I know and respect about Darvio, one of my on-air partners. He is big, impressive, hard-working, smart, knowledgeable, loyal, bombastic, thoughtful……there are more.  Oh yeah, he’s black.

Andre is charismatic, creative, clever, funny, deep and eloquent – despite the Dali-esque things he does on top of his head with his hair.  Yep, he’s black too.

Friends don’t have labels.  And that is the most important part.

When I think of these two incredible young men I think of them as friends.  Not as black friends.  I suspect they think of me without adjectives too, though they might attach some other interesting labels to me at times.

But I know this – if I needed their help or for them to have my back they would be there instantly, without question, and with the immediate loyalty of long-time friends.  That’s who they are, and it matters a lot more than an adjective that has little meaning other than an indication of appearance.  Not who they are.

We don’t often deserve the gifts that we receive.  Certainly the gift that Christ gave us with his death is beyond comprehension, and we are all humbled by the majesty of that sacrifice.

The gifts that my father gave me are humbling as well.  I am better for them, and I hope that some day, some way, that my children will be blessed by them as well.

Today I honor my father for who he was, and what he has left me.  When I think of my children and their children, I pray that what they feel they have received from me is equally important.  And, what I will be remembered for.

 

Doug Magill is a City Councilman for Solon, Ohio, a voice-over talent, freelance writer, a former IT executive and consultant on organizational change and communications.  You can reach him at doug@magillmedia.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duty and the Well of Fortitude on the Fourth of July

By Doug Magill

On a moonless Pacific night during World War II, the pilot of a Hellcat fighter returning from a routine patrol desperately searched for the comfort of an aircraft carrier he would never find. My father, directing fighter operations on the ship that was the home of the lost plane, listened in horror to the static-roughened panic in the young man’s voice. His radio direction-finding equipment had failed and fleet orders prevented the carrier crew from illuminating the ship due to nearby Japanese submarines.

Disappearing into the blackness of the sea, terrified and alone, the pilot was not considered a coward by his shipmates. My father first told me this story when I was young, and I asked him how a brave military pilot could panic. With a soft and faraway look in his eyes, he replied, “It’s just that his well of fortitude ran dry. We all never knew how deep it really was for any of us.”

Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I combat pilot once said, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” He understood that there is a well of fortitude within that can be drawn upon time and again, under even the most terrifying circumstances.  And yet, military men know that there are occasions when even that is not enough, when fear can overcome even the hardiest soul, when there is no more bravery, no more strength, no more belief. Still they are drawn beyond what can be humanly expected by their sense of duty – to themselves, to their comrades, to their country.

During the war my father was aboard a ship that was struck by a Japanese torpedo that failed to explode. His carrier, the USS Cowpens, was attacked by kamikaze aircraft, and barely survived the monstrous waves of Halsey’s typhoon (Typhoon Cobra), a ferocious cyclone in the Pacific Ocean that struck the Pacific Fleet with one-hundred twenty mph winds and sank three ships.

The Cowpens was also sent as a decoy into the Sea of Japan without escorts.  When I asked Dad if he was scared, he would only say that he was able to draw from his well of fortitude during those times, and hang on. At times he was so frightened that he couldn’t move, but when he saw his shipmates doing their duty he felt he had to do his job and not let them down. He never boasted or showed pride, only relief that he had performed his duty and not failed his shipmates.

Landing on the beaches of Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division, my uncle Tom suffered from migraine headaches which prevented him from seeing. All he could do was hang onto the web belt of the man in front of him. His comrades would tell him where to aim so that he could shoot. Though he didn’t share many details of that bloody island, he told me of times when he was so afraid he couldn’t move, or shoot, and that the chaos of war gave countless opportunities for heroism and panic, often to the same person in the space of moments. He described the jungle and the insects, the heat, and the constant fear. He told me, “I was afraid all the time, and felt suffocated because there was nowhere to hide. It was a relief sometimes to dig leeches out of my legs with my combat knife. The pain was real, and distracted me from the fear.” He drew deeply from his well of fortitude, time and again shaking and panicked. Wanting to do his duty for the men around him he would take that next, halting step which kept him going for one more minute, one more agonizing hour, one more terrifying day.

Proud of their service, both my father and my uncle never described themselves as heroic or deserving of special consideration. They knew that brave men could panic, and cowards could become unexpected heroes. Incredible feats of courage were often not recognized and medals were awarded for trivial things, or for momentary political purposes.

To most veterans, medals and awards are not indicative of the value of one’s service, and do not imply a hierarchy of bravery. They do not judge the value of one’s duty, as they know that even clerks in Washington are important, as are the bases and supply ships manned by tired and overworked sailors and airmen – who will never be recognized. They, too, perform their duty and may have had to draw upon their wells of fortitude due to accidents, weather, or other events that required bravery unrelated to combat.

A childhood friend of mine declined a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam because his sense of honor caused him to feel that others deserved it more. Dan felt it would have been false pride to accept a decoration that he didn’t feel he deserved, though he knew he had performed his duty and saw combat that tested him.

Most veterans understand that medals aren’t scorecards for manliness. Performing their duty was all that mattered. The rest was randomness and fate.  A man performed his duty when required, regardless of acknowledgement or reward, and without complaint. The concept of duty is something that these warriors passed on to their children.  I have many childhood memories of completing required tasks, hoping in vain for recognition from my father. Acting responsibly was not worthy of note.

Most military men would react with disdain to a leader who attempted to take credit for the actions of men at arms when all he did was to make a politically-calculated decision to send them in harm’s way.  Particularly after requiring the overall commander of the operation to sign a document that would place blame on him should the operation fail.

A leader takes responsibility first, and credit last.

Military men know that courage is what is shown, not claimed.  And, that duty is what takes them beyond courage.

To shiver for days on end while being underfed and improperly clothed, waiting as your comrades slink away, knowing that you will soon be asked again to fight a professional enemy vastly better equipped and trained than you are.

To walk in ramrod-straight pride up a hill in sweltering July heat knowing that those you are attacking are entrenched and will soon devastate your comrades in a hail of grapeshot and gunfire.

To endure endless days and nights of rain and snow while your ship becomes coated with ice and knowing that a relentless foe is marshaling submarines and aircraft to send the ships you are bound to protect to searing moments of hell followed by the iciness of the depths.

To be starving and shivering in the relentless snow, surrounded by arrogant troops believing they will crush your dwindling forces as you run out of ammunition, and finding those last moments of pride when your leader responded to a request for your surrender with a single word, “Nuts!”

To be asked that one last measure of energy and strength to defend a wind-blasted hilltop in cold so deep your weapons have frozen and your arms are so heavy it is a burden to place your bayonet on your rifle to repulse one more charge of a fanatical foe.

To find the heat of the jungle dissipate and the sweat on your body chill as you crawl into a tunnel pursuing a mind-numbed enemy who plants traps to maim you and hides behind children and executes women as an example and who will never stand and fight directly.

To step carefully through the blasted remains of buildings knowing that a relentless foe wishes to take your legs or arms without ever having to fight you as you search through the stench and the garbage in deadening heat for men for whom cowardice is a moral code.

And yes, to feel the vibrations of the helicopter engine in your back as you prepare to leap into the night of a foreign country where you don’t know the strength of your enemy and the deviousness of his waiting traps.

Because your country needs you to.

Because you have been ordered to.

Because your comrades depend on you.

Because in all, it needs to be done.

These are the men who have found the meaning of courage, and duty.  Not those who issue commands and boast in comfort and security behind the protection that they and their comrades provide every day.

These are the men we remember today.

As the young Hellcat pilot found in his last moments before entering the silent embrace of the sea, duty doesn’t always involve the risks of combat. His service and death were nonetheless noble and honorable. Military men will forever salute him because of that. Today, it would be fitting for those who profess to lead us, and for those who evaluate them, to humbly remember all of those who have died nobly, regardless of circumstances. They owe the opportunity to do such things in a democracy to those who performed their duty for all of us, even if their well of fortitude ran dry in darkness and solitude, far from home.

Doug Magill is a freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net