Everything My Dad Taught Me, He Learned In The Army

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The following was syndicated from The Jewish Journal for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

My dad was like no other.

He was an accomplished CPA. That in itself might not seem so unusual, but how many accountants do you know who are also adept at wilderness survival? He could identify all of the animal tracks and scat. He knew the differences between poison ivy and poison sumac. He taught me how to climb rocks and tell the time by looking at the sun. He was a wonderful teacher. Out there in the woods, with my father, I felt like Pocahontas.

One time we were walking along some railroad tracks. We heard a train off in the distance and it was coming our way. Dad took a bunch of pennies out of his pocket and put them on the track. The train thundered by with such force and noise! He picked up the pennies. Now they were flat and paper thin.

I stared at him in amazement: “Dad, how do you know all this stuff?”

“The Army,” was his reply.

Then there was that time when Mom was sick and Dad prepared breakfast. My father never, ever went into the kitchen, not even for a Coke. But on this particular morning, Mom had a fever, so there was Dad, hovering over a hot stove, cracking eggs into the skillet.

I was in shock. “Dad, I didn’t know you could cook.”

“Sure, I can cook. I can do everything.”

“Everything? How did you learn everything?”

“The Army.”

“I brought Hitler to his knees. So don’t think you’re going to put me in Leisure World.”

Like many men of his generation, my father’s social circle was the family — immediate and extended. After dealing with all of the aunts, uncles, cousins (related by blood and by marriage), who had time for anyone else? But sometimes, someone from the outside world would penetrate our family cocoon. The phone would ring and a man’s gruff voice — one that I didn’t recognize — would be on the line.

“Is your father there?”

“Hold on. Dad! Telephone!

“Who is it?” my father asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Oh for C’rissakes! Ask who’s calling. Oh, never mind. I’ll take it.” And that’s when Dad would grab the receiver from my little hand and bark into the phone. “Hello? Yeah? Hey! How the hell are you?”

Then Dad, with a dismissive wave of his hand, would tell me, “Clear out. I’m on the phone.” For the next hour, I’d hear raucous laughter, lots of dirty words and more raucous laughter coming from behind the closed door. Then Dad would hang up.

“Who was it, Dad?”

“An old buddy,” he answered.

“From where?”

For the next hour, I’d hear raucous laughter, lots of dirty words and more raucous laughter coming from behind the closed door.

“The Army.”

“Dad, was the Army fun?”

“No. It was hell. I hated every minute of it. But they made a man out of me.”

My father, Joseph N. Switkes, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, credited as the turning point in breaking Hitler’s stranglehold on Europe. He served throughout Belgium, France and Germany from March 1943 to November 1945.

Even when I was only 8-years-old, I knew all about Army life … from television: Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. Ernie Bilko sort of looked like my father: Big glasses. Type-A extrovert. Always up to something. I’d sit there, cross-legged, on the carpeted floor of our living room, watching the latest exploits of Bilko and his men. Long after the show went off the air, I could easily picture my father in uniform, kibitzing with Phil Silvers. This image easily coexisted with our family’s suburban life of comfort and convenience.

But sometimes, a mood crept over my father. He seemed remote and inaccessible. Maybe it was his awesome temper that would flare up when someone did something he deemed foolish. If he got really angry, his glare could freeze the blood in my veins. His eyes, usually so warm and so intelligent, would turn to ice. This steely look showed no mercy, no forgiveness. Sure, physically, he was right there in the living room with all of us, but at these times, his focus was somewhere else. All alone. High up. Silently, standing guard on some distant rocky cliff, protecting everything and everyone he held dear.

And that’s why, when the time came, I wanted to protect him.

“It was hell. I hated every minute of it. But they made a man out of me.”

After Mom died, my father lived all alone in their home. His house, like him, was falling into disrepair.

I worried about him, especially as his lung cancer progressed. I would fly in from California every other month, to spend a week with him in Maryland. But that didn’t seem like a really viable plan. We had to talk.

“Dad. I can’t keep coming back here so often.”

“Who asked you to?”

I looked around the house. Every table surface was covered with mountains of unopened junk mail. In the fireplace there were piles of old newspapers — no, not for kindling, just for storage. The wallpaper was peeling. There was a giant hole in the ceiling, which leaked when it rained. The tiles on the floor were cracked and chipped. The pull cord on the blinds was frayed. There was an ever-present smell of mold and mildew.

“Dad, it’s dangerous for you to be here.”

My father looked down. He covered his face with his hands. He took a deep breath and when he looked up, he stared straight at me. The lines and crevices on his face seemed to melt away. He no longer looked old, gray and dusty. For a moment, my father appeared young again. He was red and raw.

“What did you just say?” he asked me.

“I said it’s dangerous for you to live here alone.”

“Dangerous? You call this dangerous?” he demanded.

“Dad, you could slip on this floor. A hunk of plaster could fall on your head. The food you eat could kill a moose.”

“You call this dangerous?” He began to pound his chest with his clenched fist. The blue veins in his neck pulsed with rage. He bellowed:

“My home is not dangerous. It’s the world out there that’s dangerous.”

“But, Dad — ”

“I brought Hitler to his knees. So don’t think you’re going to put me in Leisure World.”

It was at that moment that I finally saw my father in all of his glory. There he was. Clear as day. The power. The rage. The courage. The wit. The temper.

And it was at that moment that I could see through time. I could see my father as a 21-year-old GI, a Jewish kid far from home, trudging through the snow-covered fields of Europe.

And I could also see that against my father, Hitler didn’t stand a chance. Because my dad was in the Army.

Ellen Switkes writes personal stories for the page and the stage. She also tutors children in language arts. You can read more from the Jewish Journal here:

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