A Veterans’ Day Memory: The Day I Learned My Dad Was A God

| Not every child discovers his father is larger than life. |

Growing up in a world without video games, I spent much of my childhood building plastic models of ships and airplanes and playing with Army Men. What are Army Men? Think: dolls for guys; little two-inch-high rubber figurines representing different types of military fighters, based on World War 2. There was rifleman, machine gunner, and various others. But by far the coolest was bazooka-man. Any guys of my generation reading this, am I right? Was not bazooka-man your favorite? Of course he was. Everyone loved bazooka-man. Why? Because he had a bazooka.

But somewhere around age 10 you grew out of Army Men and got into building military planes and ships from plastic model kits. And this was before we knew that inhaling the fumes from model glue was a drug trip. No wonder I found it all so addicting. But the glue was almost as cool as the models themselves, and it came in several flavors: fast drying, very fast drying, and very, very fast drying. Perhaps that’s why, when I grew up and learned how to grade diamonds, I found it quite familiar. You have slightly-included (SI), very-slightly included (VS), and very-very slightly included (VVS). Just like the glue. Except diamond grading doesn’t get you high.

Back to the glue. If you chose the wrong one, bad things would happen. Let’s say you’re trying to cement a radar mast onto a destroyer, and you choose glue that doesn’t dry fast enough. The radar mast will tip over the moment you release it. Choose glue that’s too fast drying? The radar mast will stick to your fingers and break off as you try to release it. Glue selection was an art.

The point is, I was really into military ships and planes. On the aircraft side, I built an F-8 Crusader, a B-29 bomber, and my favorite: an F-105 Starfighter. The Starfighter was even cooler than bazooka-man, which is saying something.

But the ships were the best of all. I knew my father had served in the Navy in WW2, but that’s kind of an abstract thought for a young kid. Nonetheless I built the kind of ships he’d served on, which were mostly destroyers. Destroyers were nice, but they hardly could compare to the aircraft carrier which was so large and complicated it required every tube of glue I had. It was worth it, because the carrier had a catapult that could shoot tiny plastic planes off the deck and onto the living room carpet.

But even the aircraft carrier couldn’t compete with my crown jewel: a US Navy submarine! Get this. The submarine not only fired tiny spring-loaded plastic torpedoes onto the carpet, it also—I’m not making this up—fired tiny Polaris missiles about 12 inches into the air out of little hatches that would pop open. Life can’t get better than that, for a ten-year-old boy.

Jump ahead a couple of years. The family had moved to Switzerland, and we were taking a holiday in Barcelona, Spain. Growing up in Iowa, I’d never seen an actual, honest-to-God Navy warship, except at the movies. Landlocked Switzerland didn’t have many of them either.

We were driving around on the outskirts of the city and were somehow up on a high hill with quite a view over Barcelona and the harbor. And in that harbor was…OMG! A submarine! A real one, not the fake plastic kind I’d grown up with. A real submarine, in the wild. I don’t know if my blood pressure shot up, but my pulse must have. The submarine was totally black, and absolutely the coolest thing I had seen, ever, in my entire life.

“I think it’s a U.S. Navy submarine,” said my dad, who we called by his first name—Koert. We had cousins living with us and all the kids in the household called my parents by their first names, which at the time I didn’t realize was weird.

I was mesmerized by the submarine, even though it was tiny, being seen from up on a hill, more than a mile away. It didn’t matter. I was in heaven. A real submarine! If we’d gone no closer, that memory would have remained a high point of my life.

“Let’s drive closer,” said Koert.

“Yes, let’s!” screamed my soul. Was this really happening? We were going to drive closer?

I can’t remember how we navigated to the shipyard, but somehow Koert was able to find it, and managed to drive all the way up to the gate.

The submarine was right there, clearly visible, perhaps 100 yards past the fence. But now it was enormous. And even more black than it had been from a distance. Huge, black, menacing, and fabulous. I stared at it, awestruck as only a 12-year-old could be. We sure didn’t have things like this in Iowa—just plastic models of them. I wondered how many tubes of glue this guy had required. And it was definitely a U.S. Navy submarine. A big American flag flew from its stern. We hadn’t seen an American flag in almost a year, so patriotic pride kicked in as well.

But there was more here than the submarine. The gate to the naval yard was guarded by a sentry, dressed in a navy uniform, standing guard, and carrying—a gun! I was ready to swoon all over again. A real, live “army man.” Well, navy man, at least. It was probably the first time I’d seen someone in military uniform. Cedar Falls isn’t exactly San Diego. I immediately conferred demi-god status on this glittering, come-to-life, replica of my childhood toys.

Then a truly amazing thing happened. My dad got out of the car and began walking towards the navy sentry. Towards him, mind, not hiding in fear as I might have done. I couldn’t believe this was happening, and was quite worried. Would he get shot? Koert walked up to the sentry, and began chatting briefly. Then he pulled out his wallet and showed the sentry something.

The sentry saluted him.

Yep! The sentry who was guarding the submarine—that sentry—saluted my dad!

I’d already assigned demi-god status to the sentry. What did that make my father?

I learned later that Koert was never actually discharged from the Navy. There is a special classification called “Retired” which is not quite the same as Discharged. “Retired” means you’re still sort of part of the Navy, and technically the Navy can call you back from retirement if they need to. Anyway, if you’re “Navy-Retired” you have a little identification card in your wallet, listing your rank. And Koert’s ID said Lieutenant Commander. In hindsight, of course the lowly sentry saluted this high ranking officer. Technically no salute is necessary if the other party’s not in uniform. But I’m sure the sentry was thinking: No one ever got in trouble for saluting an officer, uniform be damned, retired or otherwise.

Anyway, at the time I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but if the clouds had parted and a ray of sunlight had shown down illuminating my parent, I would not have been surprised. In fact something even more astonishing happened.

The sentry got on the phone and spoke to someone at the other end. Koert waved to me in the car, signaling to come join him. I made it in three seconds. And then, suddenly, a door in the sail of the submarine opened up, and a real naval officer, in a real uniform, came on deck. It was the captain of the submarine! Forget demi-god. This was the real thing for sure. He walked up to the gate, shook hands with Koert and they began chatting. Most of it was over my head, but then the captain, looking at me, said these magic words:

“So would you like to come aboard and see the boat?”

He was inviting us onto the submarine. I don’t know everything but I do know this. No 12-year-old boy ever, in the history of the time-space continuum, has ever been more thrilled than I was at that moment. Demi-gods saluted my father. Real gods hung out with him. And I was being invited inside a U.S. Navy submarine.

We went aboard and the captain gave us a quick tour of all the important places. Oddly, I don’t remember much about the inside of the submarine. It was quite cramped and dark, but there were torpedoes, and sailors’ bunks, and a tiny cubicle called the “wardroom” with a table and a green tablecloth. We sat there while the captain chatted with us. Coffee was served and someone handed me a Coke. It was probably the best day of my life, at least up to that point, and I remember saying to myself over and over: “I’m inside a submarine. I’m inside a submarine!”

I learned later that the captain was so cordial because he and Koert actually knew each other from World War 2 days, and had friends in common. That’s what Koert had asked the sentry: who was the skipper? And when he found out, he requested the sentry make the call.

I was in a daze for hours, and don’t remember much else that happened that trip. But at least I’d finally learned who my father really was.

Veterans’ Day is when we’re charged with honoring those who served. As of today (11/11/22) Koert and Connie—now both 99 years old—are still with us, and doing great in a retirement village in Denver; a long way from the sea. But after that day in Barcelona I’ve never seen him in the same light. He’s not just any dad. He’s the father whose special powers allowed him to take his 12-year-old son inside a U.S. Navy submarine.

Does anything else really matter?

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