Now that my mother is in assisted living, we’ve been rummaging through her apartment in Coconut Creek, FL, looking for the types of things the Internet is always telling us people find when going through their parents’ belongings. You know, the mint condition 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card valued at $1.5 million. A previously unknown Van Gogh landscape. Film canisters containing a perfectly-preserved print of the 1924 Erich von Stroheim masterpiece, Greed. Evidence of the purchase of Apple Stock in 1989.
The last time my wife Barbara and I conducted such a search–of her grandparents’ apartment–all we found were used tissues and about a half dozen pairs of gift-wrapped pajamas. Her family history held no explanations for either collection.
This time, if we weren’t going to find something that would let us retire comfortably, we hoped to at least uncover something interesting. So far, we’d uncovered about five million name and address stickers sent by various charities. Oh, and used tissues in the pockets of every garment.
What the hell is it with old people and tissues? Is there some reason why you save them? Throw the damn tissues out after you use them! That way, your children and grandchildren won’t have to come in contact with antique snot and, for all I know, decades-old flu germs.
Where was I? Right–the search for something interesting. Finally, in the storage space above the washing machine, I found an American flag, professionally folded to a neat triangle and placed in a plastic sheath made expressly for that purpose.*
It looked like a memento of one of those funerals you see on TV, when the deceased was a cop or a war hero or a president, and the coffin is draped with a flag which is then removed, folded in an elaborate ceremony, and presented to the grieving widow.
The thing is, to my knowledge, not only had no one in my family ever died in action, no relative had ever even seen much action of any kind, including strenuous exercise.
I hesitated to ask my mom about it because her mind is failing her, but my curiosity got the better of me. As she sometimes does when the subject is years in the past, she became suddenly lucid.
“Oh yes,” she replied to my query. “It’s from your father’s funeral. They have to give you a flag if you served and you ask for one, so I asked for one.” This adheres closely to the philosophy of many Florida retirees: If it’s free, take it.
I asked mom a follow-up question. “Dad was in the military?”
“Honorably discharged,” she said proudly. “But he didn’t serve overseas, so he never applied for benefits because he didn’t think he deserved any. Everybody always told him, ‘Bernie, get the benefits. Maybe you’ll get better hearing aids.’ But did he listen? No.”
This last line piqued my interest since, during our search for an assisted living place, salespeople always asked if my mom was entitled to veterans’ benefits, which could be worth over $1,000 a month.
“Do you have his discharge papers?” I asked mom.
“They’re in the house somewhere.”
Yeah, well they weren’t. Every greeting card my mother had ever received? Yes. Canceled checks from 1993? Sure. A plastic case containing teeth in the bedroom closet? Check. Condom in the bedstand? Absolutely, and EWWW!
Military discharge papers? Not so much.
So I contacted a firm named Aardvark Research which specializes in locating military records and being first in an alphabetical search of firms that locate military records. They replied:
We have received your DD214 request. This record is among those that were damaged or destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Archives in St. Louis. The National Archives is empowered to create a replacement for the original DD214 which you could use for any official purpose, but this process takes from about 10 days to 10 weeks.
The 1973 National Archives fire is, evidently, a very infamous event in veterans’ affairs. It destroyed the major portion of Army personnel records from 1912 through 1959 and Air Force personnel with surnames Hubbard through Z.
If my dad, Bernard Hallen, had been in the Air Force, he would have narrowly escaped!
It turns out, however, that he was in the Army. According to the Certification of Military Service that Aardvark found in lieu of discharge papers, my father served from March 30, 1943 through August 18, 1943, when he was, in fact, given an honorable discharge.
How, I wondered, does someone manage to get in and out of the Army in four and a half months during the height of World War II?
My mother had no idea.
Well, first, I’m guessing that dad got drafted, because I really can’t imagine him marching into a recruitment center. But why the quick and honorable discharge? Did they think the country was better served by him continuing his civilian job of wholesaling cold cuts?
Alas, the answers were consumed in the fire of 1973.
But it turns out that my family has a legacy of short and distinguished service in defense of our American way of life. In my mother’s condo I did find my grandfather’s military discharge papers. Herman Harry Nayor was honorably discharged from the navy in Newport RI on December 30, 1920 after having reported for duty in Brooklyn on December 16, 1920.
Four months for my father and fourteen days for my grandfather!
See you soon.
P.S. Happy Father’s Day.
*About the flag that started this: apparently, I’m not supposed to do with it what I did with just about everything else I found in my mother’s house, e.g.: place it unceremoniously in her condo’s dumpster. According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, proper etiquette requires that I start a fire that is “fairly large and of sufficient intensity to ensure complete burning of the flag.” During this conflagration (get it?), I should “come to attention, salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a brief period of silent reflection.”
I can tell you this: I will not stand in the parking lot outside my mother’s patio saluting a large and intense bonfire while her neighbors discuss what they always suspected about Sunny Hallen’s son.