In the 1983 classic film “Field of Dreams,” Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella built a baseball diamond in his corn field. Long-deceased major leaguers, including his estranged father, returned from the grave to stage exhibition games.
When he saw his father as a young man, Kinsella exclaimed, “My God, I only saw him later, when he was worn down by life. Look at him. He has his whole life in front of him. I’m not even a glint in his eye.” Kinsella was given one more magical chance to heal old wounds by showing his father, for the first time, how much he loved him.
I used to think of this as just a clever Hollywood story line. That is until I met my own father — six years before I was born. The encounter was not in an enchanted corn field, but a tiny black diary of his I recently found.
It began with the year 1942. Jack Gibson was a 24-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps first lieutenant en route by troop ship across the Atlantic as part of Operation Torch, the first amphibious invasion of World War II. His squadron’s mission was to land on an enemy beach in North Africa, build airstrips, then fly sorties against German U-boats.
As my finger traced his faded script, I realized I was meeting a man I’d never known. A blanket of warmth came over me. Gone was the rancor that had developed between us prior to his death in 1984.
The pages told of his best friend, squadron commander Capt. Sam Zemurray Jr., from New Orleans, whom he had met in basic training. It seemed an unlikely friendship given their radically different backgrounds.
Dad had been raised in the small west Texas town of Rising Star, where his father owned and operated the only pharmacy within miles. Zemurray, a 6-foot-4-inch collegiate boxer, had been born to wealth. He was being groomed to take the reins of his family’s business — the monolithic United Fruit Company — which imported more bananas than any company in the world.
My father wrote that Sam, despite his life of affluence, was more considerate of other’s feelings than any man he’d ever known. Possessed of an unfailing compassion for those less fortunate, he went to great lengths to ensure that the enlisted men under his command were well-treated and personally attended to their problems. They loved him for it.
Later in life, these were attributes I admired most in my father. However, he discounted them instead, chastising himself for never achieving even a fraction of Sam’s wealth. When he turned to drink, I turned away.
A few nights before the assault, the two friends stood on deck of the troop ship tossing in a frigid November gale. Sam said, “You know, Jack, I have no fear of losing my life. The way I look at it, my time will come and there will probably be nothing I can do about it. So I think we should just take things as they come and not worry”
Dad reported that he never again feared for his life.
What Dad didn’t tell me about the war before his death, he did 30 years later in his diary. Like the day of the assault when the Higgins boat he commanded with 35 soldiers aboard got lost in stormy seas.
“We backtracked three miles to the ship and finally found our way. I never told the men. Under Sam’s leadership, our squadron made it with no casualties.”
Two months later, Sam was dead. His plane crashed into a mountain in a storm.
Dad was not long on emotion. His entry about Sam’s death was brief, but heart-wrenching. “Today I lost the best friend I ever had”
I loved my father, but never told him so. Like Ray Kinsella, it took meeting him again 30 years later to understand just how much.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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