My father died of a bullet wound to the head when he was 31 years old. It had nothing to do with his military service but everything to do with the personal war he waged during his entire brief existence on this earth.
When I was seven years old, I was told of my father’s tragic death by his mother. Grandma Dottie was less of a stranger to me at that point than my father was but she was still not someone I knew well. I remember thinking that I was sad because she looked so sad while telling me this news. At seven, I had only just started to have a concept of what death actually was. It was also just about when I started to understand my unconventional family dynamics; that the man who was raising me, the man I called “Daddy” was instead my grandfather and the last time I saw my biological father I was just two years old so no direct memories existed. This news Grandma Dottie brought me ensured that we would never have the opportunity form new memories.
After my father’s death, I started to see Grandma Dottie more frequently. We rarely spoke about him, even when I asked. She told me that he was mischievous, getting into a good degree of trouble. He loved cars and their speed. He frequented the old drag strips of Long Island with cars he worked on and owned…and some that he “borrowed.” He liked to take things apart and rebuild them. His dream was to be a pilot, fast and far away from everything that held him down. He enlisted in the US Air Force as soon as he was able. He was almost legally blind but the Vietnam War was raging on at the time so they welcomed any volunteers they could get. He never did become a pilot. In fact, he was discharged early. (The reason for his discharge was one of the greatest mysteries of my father that haunted me. I only found out for sure what the circumstances of his release were a few months ago.) Talking about him made Grandma Dottie sad. Even as a child I was in tune with that so eventually, I stopped asking her questions.
But my questions never stopped. As I got older, more and more kept coming. Terrible things were all my mother had to say about him, on the rare occasions that she said anything about him…but she rarely said anything to me at all about anything. Despite all that, I always had a burning desire to find out more about him. There was no Internet then. I had no idea where to even begin searching. All I did was lament over it for years with whomever would listen.
When I was 31, a private investigator was hired to find me. Grandma Dottie, with whom I became estranged decades before, and her ex-husband, Peter F. Dajnowski, Sr., my paternal grandfather, had both died. They had a horrific marriage that ended in an even more horrific divorce before I was even born so the irony of the timing of their deaths was not lost on me. Their estates needed to be settled so next of kin needed to be located. Settling an estate for regular people is not the grandiose moment the movies portray it to be. For me, it was just an overweight, balding man who smelled like cheetos and cigarettes coming to my house asking me several questions about things I didn’t have answers for. Each of us had a lot of the same questions and I asked him to share those answers with me once he obtained them. He said he couldn’t do that but the people who hired him to find me might be able to help.
Just as the private investigator said, the attorney that hired him to find me reached out to me. It turns out that my father’s brother was still alive and communicating with the attorneys. But my father’s untimely death and prior estrangement from me and his other two daughters complicated this process. I got excited. I thought that after all these years, I had the chance to have my questions answered. This was not the case. After hearing my story, the paralegal was sympathetic but said that they couldn’t disclose the personal information for my uncle or half sisters. What I could do was write them letters that they would collect from me then extend to them. This way the ball would be in their court to reach out to me. That’s what I did.
When I didn’t hear from any of these family members for a while, I followed up with the paralegal to see if she sent my letters. She said she did. Sadly, she told me that my father’s brother flat out told her that he was never going to reach out to me. He wanted nothing to do with me. I was just a sad reminder of his big brother. I told her I understood, which I did. When we hung up the phone, I cried anyway.
A few days later, I got a call. It was my father’s brother, Joseph. He told me what the paralegal relayed to me already. He was unapologetic then…surprised me. We made arrangements to meet at a diner in Fresh Meadows. I had only ever seen a few photos of him over the years. I didn’t know if I would recognize him. I knew for sure that he wouldn’t recognize me. Once again, I was filled with excitement at the thought of finally having some answers. AND I would be getting those answers from someone who loved him so I figured my chances of hearing something positive were pretty high. When we found eachother at the diner (wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be), my Uncle Joseph told me that a year or two before he had a stroke. Physically, he made a 100% recovery. Mentally, he did not fare as well. The part of the brain that was effected was where his long term memory is stored. The good news is that he is completely able to form new memories. The bad news is that the majority of his existing memories prior to the stroke were erased. You can’t make this shit up.
Over our meal, we talked and laughed. Uncle Joseph told me that he was glad that he changed his mind about meeting me. He said there were a couple of things he remembered that he wished were among the things erased. He told me about the night my father died. He told me about when my father came home early from the US Air Force. The Incident that brought about his (honorable) discharge is an amusing anecdote involving profanity, an M16, USAF M15s and nudity but the aftermath carries with it the underlying sadness of my father’s brief existence. Because of the damage my uncle sustained with the stroke, I questioned the accuracy of these stories…but at least they were tales told by someone who actually knew and loved him. It was a start.
Fast forward to the power of The Internet. I would periodically Google my father’s name to see if anyone added any information about him anywhere — HS yearbook pictures, his name in conjunction with Islip Speedway, anything. One day, some thing came up. His name and a photo on Cochise Memory Gardens website. It was a photo of my father’s grave marker bearing his name, USAF rank, birth date and date of death. Son-of-a-bitch…my uncle was right. Despite that crazy story about what happened on base, my father was honorably discharged from the US Air Force and laid to rest in a military cemetery.
Fast forward again a few more years to me one day passing American Legion Rusy Bohm Post 411 and taking note of the sign saying that the Ladies Auxiliary has an ongoing membership drive. A friend of mine from the neighborhood was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary so I asked what I had to do to become a member. I had to be the relative (daughter, granddaughter, wife) of a serviceman who was in active duty during an international conflict and that serviceman had to have been discharged honorably. To prove this, I needed to produce a copy of my father’s DD-214s (official discharge paperwork). When I explained my family situation, my friend directed me to a website. As next-of-kin, I am entitled to this paperwork. To my surprise and delight, the website gave me the option of requesting only a copy of my father’s DD-214s or his entire service record. My father’s entire service record. Wow. This is something in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be able to see. I checked the box but didn’t get too excited. I was tired of being Charlie Brown to football toting Lucy.
After what seemed like an eternity, a large, scary manila envelope addressed to me appeared in my mailbox. There it was. My father’s DD-214s officially confirming that my father was honorably discharged from the US Air Force along with his entire military service record. Nineteen pieces of paper looked like pure gold to me. I hit the jackpot. I had my father’s old addresses, a copy of his fingerprints and his signature. I had the details of his medical record. I learned that his eyesight was every bit as bad as I was told it was. I learned that the illness that caused The Incident that gained his honorable discharge was something he arrived at Lackland with and something he carried with him until his passing. I learned that his upbringing was every bit as horrific as I heard it was and was a major factor in his illness.
For the first time, I had pieces of the puzzle in my hands. Not all the pieces…but a lot of them. I would never be able to obtain all of them…but now it’s okay. My father liked to take things apart and build things. So do I. He did it with auto parts. I do it with ideas and words. Same thing. We take inventory of what we’ve got and make something better than what we started with…sometimes we need to get creative in order to fill in the blanks and make it work. The demons are as dead as we allow them to be. Each of us spent a lot of time being haunted. Each of us longed to be part of something good. I took my father’s DD-214s, applied for my membership to the Ladies Auxiliary and began to turn a tragic tale into something hopeful.
I get to create your legacy, Dad. My third of it anyway. This is a gift. I get to carry on what you started. I get to honor the flag that people like you helped to preserve and the freedom it symbolizes. I get to do good because of the life you gave me and the choice you made to enlist while others were literally running from the war. Maybe the opportunity to create new memories with you didn’t die on September 16, 1977 when that bullet landed in your brain. Maybe on Monday, I won’t only be marching with the Ladies Auxiliary of Rusy Bohm Post 411 in the Memorial Day Parade…but I will also be marching with you.