For members of the Greatest Generation, Dec. 7, 1941, will always be “a date which will live in infamy.”
For me, however, the date I will always remember came 30 years later: Dec. 7, 1971.
I was 16 years old at the time, and feeling the full impudence of my baby boomer birthright. As the youngest of my parents’ eight children, I had a unique relationship with my mom and dad because I had them all to myself during my teenage years, whereas my older siblings always had to share them. As a result, I thought I knew them pretty well. But I was completely unprepared for what I saw when I walked into my parents’ bedroom that winter day.
The first thing I noticed as I walked into the room was the tall, round hatbox that was resting on the bed next to where Dad was sitting. I knew that box well. Years earlier, I had discovered it on the top shelf of Dad’s closet, and peeked inside. As a little boy, I was absolutely captivated by the hat inside the box. It was a military officer’s hat — light brown with a shiny black bill and the U.S. Navy crest on the front. I used to sneak into Mom and Dad’s room every so often and take the box down from the shelf to look at that hat. I held it in my hands and traced the outline of the Navy crest with my fingertips. I would try it on from time to time to see if I was any closer to being able to wear it. To me it represented courage, excitement and adventure.
But evidently it represented something else to Dad.
“Please take that hat off and put it away,” Dad said one Saturday afternoon when I was about 10 and he caught me admiring myself — and the hat — in Mom’s mirror. There was no anger in his voice — only a trace of something I didn’t understand then, but would now probably call “melancholy.” I thought he just didn’t like the hat — that was why he tucked it away in his closet and spoke so rarely of his war experiences. It wasn’t until I walked in that December day when I was 16 and saw him sitting there next to the box, holding the hat in his hands, that I realized there was more to it than that.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“I never know what to say when people ask me where I served during the war,” he said, not looking up at me but still holding and staring at the hat. “If I tell them I was stationed at Pearl Harbor, they immediately treat me with respect. They think I was there, and that I survived. And then I have to tell them that I didn’t actually get to Pearl until two years later, and that the biggest risk I faced while I was there was oh, I don’t know getting a paper cut or something.”
To be honest, I didn’t really understand what Dad was saying. It was 1971. Young men were burning their draft cards and fleeing to Canada to escape military service. The public mindset — especially the mindset of impressionable teenagers like me — was shaped by protesters, politicians and popular songs that proclaimed: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”
So I didn’t say anything. I just sat down on the bed next to him and took the hat from his hands and put it on my head. It fit. In fact, it was a little snug on my head. Dad noticed that — and for the first time since I came into the room, he smiled.
“You’re going to stretch that out,” he said as he reached for the hat, took it off my head and put it carefully back in the box.
“What difference does it make?” I asked. “You never wear it.”
“Yes, I do,” he said, patting the box. “And it still fits me perfectly.”
Putting on his old Navy hat was Dad’s way of remembering that world-changing day of infamy. Today most of his generation is gone, and the horror of Dec. 7, 1941, has been replaced in the public consciousness by the similarly world-changing horror of Sept. 11, 2001. I don’t actually remember Pearl Harbor — it was a little before my time. But every December I remember its impact on millions of families like mine.
And I remember the hat in the box.
(To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to www.josephbwalker.com/.)