Recollections for Veterans’ Day
I come from a family with a long history of not serving in our nation’s armed forces. I feel no shame in this; just the way things worked out. Both of my grandfathers passed away before I was born. I believe my maternal grandfather served in WWI, but I was never told much about him. My father’s father also passed away before I was born. He served in WWI and was evidently gassed, but again, I was never told much.
My older brothers came of age before the draft, and never had to serve. I reached 18 during the draft for the Viet Nam war. I registered and took the physical, of course. Later I was granted a medical pass because a couple of doctors at the University of Minnesota essentially lied on my behalf.
I had come down with rheumatic fever and an enlarged pericardium (outer lining of the heart) in the winter of my senior year of high school, due to walking home across a frozen lake in soaked and sweaty gear from a day of playing hockey. I did not take the car to the hockey game because I’d crunched a fender the night before and did not dare ask for it. Ironically, my brother took that car out the same day and finished off the fender I had dented. The result of my folly was a couple of days in the hospital with a raging fever.
Nobody ever determined the exact nature of what had happened, but the result was a few weeks of doing homework in bed at home and then a restriction on vigorous physical activity for 6 months. I cheated on that a bit with pick-up basketball games, and my parents gave me a set of golf clubs for high school graduation in the hopes I would take up a less demanding sport than all of the others I played to a definitely mediocre degree.
The two university doctors were women, which was rare at the time. They had a soft spot for my family doctor, who had been the only male student in med school years before who had treated them as equals. They felt they owed him, and in a nonsensical twist, told the army I had a heart murmur to “save” Doc Rollins’ patient.
That got me to my senior year of college, where the Army, getting a little more eager for recruits to send to Viet Nam, had me go to one of their own doctors for a 2nd opinion. I was not surprised to find he did not think I had a heart murmur, just a mildly irregular beat.
I graduated and moved to Kirkland to begin my teaching career. Then the papers came that I’d been drafted. The school district appealed, claiming that I was needed to teach English and coach the tennis team. My draft board in Minnesota was not impressed, again not to my surprise, and I was declared 1-A in October. My assumption was that I’d be allowed to complete my contract and then be sent to basic training in June, then off to Viet Nam, and then I would die. So I did the logical thing – I bought a new motorcycle.
The month after that, Richard Nixon held the first draft “lottery,” where all young men from about 18 – 22 or whatever had their birthdays put in a large drum, and the dates were drawn one at a time. According to the paper, if your birthday was among the first 50 drawn you were very likely to be drafted. All over America most people were glued to their little black and white TV screens as the dates were displayed in groups of 30. Once they got past 225 or so I began to panic, thinking I’d missed mine. But later, there it was…334. For me, the draft was over. I ended up dancing in the parking lot of my apartment building with some other guy with a high number. The next day at school I had to keep quiet a lot, as many of my friends had not been so lucky.
My two children have grown up in the volunteer Army years, and neither chose to enter the service.
But the most interesting tale from my family legacy comes from my father, except he never told me much about it. That seems to be the case with many of the best generation that saved the world at that time. When they came home, the war was over for them, and thousands of them never spoke of it for the rest of their lives. In many cases that was understandable.
In honor of my father and all others who have served, here’s what I know.
We seldom pay any attention to people who have served our country in times of war who were not in the military, but there were many of them. My father went through the University of Wisconsin in the ROTC program, primarily because it was economically advantageous to do so.
He was not an aggressive man, and one of the worst athletes I’ve ever seen, when he deigned to do anything remotely physical. A family yearly canoe camping trip was about it. When I wanted to play catch in the yard with a baseball my Mother was my partner. He ensured that I could play football with my older brothers and their friends by giving me a football for Christmas, the only such piece of equipment on the block. If you want to play, David has to be included because it’s his ball!
One of my father’s favorite tales concerned marching in formation in a college ROTC drill. A drill sergeant came up to him and roared, “Preston!”
“You’re out of step!”
The sergeant pondered that for a second and then bellowed “Company, half-step!”
My father had been the only one who was correct, and he never forgot that. In later years he became quite a devotee of square dancing, which amazed me.
He graduated from college and got a job as an engineer. WWII was starting to heat up, and soon he found himself leaving his job and heading to basic training camp on a train, with so many others. The train stopped somewhere that was not on the schedule, and a bunch of MPs got on board. They came down the aisle of each car looking for Albert Preston. When they found him, he learned that his boss had appealed to the Army, stating that the war effort would be better served by his engineering prowess being put to use on the home front.
That was all I knew of the story until… 1989. My father was going to die that year, and he knew it. He had lived with diabetes for years, and survived open heart surgery, but a diagnosis of “progressive degenerative heart disease” is pretty much uni-directional. He was only 69, and at 67, I am a Greek god by comparison in terms of health. Never physically active, he never really recovered from my Mother’s death from cancer when she was only 48. I’m not sure he was all that unhappy about his death, in fact, as most of the years from 1967 to 1989 had not been happy for him and he had suffered emotionally and physically.
One day, about a month before he passed away, he mentioned as an aside when some related topic came up that he’d received a patent during the war for his work on the high altitude breathing systems used by pilots. Evidently they had issues with their air supply not being reliable when the plane was not in level flight, which was often. My Dad fixed that problem.
I was astounded, and he pooh poohed my reaction, explaining that it was for the war effort so he never made a penny from it. To me, that was hardly the point. Then he added that he actually earned six patents during the war.
He never talked about this in all of my years of growing up. I was very close to him, closer than either of my brothers I think. I was the one that was spoiled in many ways. My father and I spent a lot of time together, and we talked at length on so many topics. This one never came up.
Recent research by my brothers and a nephew has unearthed at least three of the patents. The valve for which the first patent was filed was originally designed for high-altitude aircraft which used bottled liquid oxygen for assisted breathing by the pilot, allowing him (or her) to fly upside down without having liquid oxygen sloshing into the face mask. They were dubbed “Preston valves” and are evidently still in use and still called that. Two other applications dealt with delivering gaseous oxygen from liquid oxygen bottles. All three were filed in 1945 and granted in 1950.
I don’t know if I am remembering the number of patents as 6 incorrectly, or if nobody in the family has found them yet. In any case, after the war Dad remained on duty, so to speak, as he was seconded by his company to the government. He and my mother and my two older brothers moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee (where I was born) so he could work at the first nuclear power plant in the world. He shared a desk with Lieutenant Hymie Rickover, who later became the head of the nuclear submarine program.
Interestingly, at the time I was born (1947) the town of Oak Ridge did not appear on any maps. It was a government installation of 15,000 people that was pretty much self-contained and off-limits.
A couple of years ago I met a man with a different viewpoint. His family was from the Oak Ridge area, and at that time the government pretty much moved in and seized the needed land, paying people little for their homes and land and casting them aside.
In an odd footnote to history, my brother in law Tim went through Northwestern on a Navy ROTC scholarship. His wish was to serve in submarines, and after years of training he was sent to D.C for an interview with Admiral Rickover. In those days, no officer served on a submarine without a personal interview with Rickover, and with his endorsement. In a two minute interview, Rickover decided he did not like Tim, and he never got to serve on a submarine. In one of life’s cruel ironies, he served on a destroyer tasked with tracing and destroying…submarines.
And so, on Veteran’s Day, let us all pay at least a nod of respect to all who have served our country in whatever role fate cast for them, in or out of uniform.
Copyright 2014 David Preston