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U.S. Army Photograph 41-133-79-1/AK-67, LTC Donald T.M. Wall, January 5, 1967

It might be more a memory of a memory at this point, but it is a vivid memory just the same. It is the moment that I actually met my father for the first time. I must have been about 3, though I don’t know the precise year, and I know that I had seen him before, but still…

I remember the days beforehand. This was the late 60s, and we lived on Nona Kay Drive in San Antonio Texas. I have this vision of an old TV with some soap opera playing in the background (“Like sands through an hourglass..”), and Mother asking me if I was excited that my Daddy was coming home.

I most certainly was.

There were pictures of Dad all around the house, all in various uniforms. As I understand it now, this was Father’s second tour in Vietnam. Now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Medical Corpse, Dad had overseen the construction of a field hospital during this tour. In Korea he had served as an intelligence officer. In World War II he had served briefly in the marines as an airplane mechanic toward the end of the war. Father would soon retire and move on to try his hand at a variety of civilian jobs. He would serve as a hospital administrator, teach at a few colleges, run a submarine sandwich shop, and sell mobile homes among other things, all before settling into a retirement career as a Dam Guide (that is a guide at Hoover Dam for non-Boulder City natives). Through it all, I think his 23 years of service to the military remained the defining feature of his career.

What I understood at the time was that my father was far away, and he was finally coming home. I must have spoken to him on the phone once or twice, or at least provided the toddler equivalent of speech. Anyway, I knew my father. He was very much a part of my life. So, when Mother began to ask me if I was happy that dad was coming home, the answer was most certainly ‘yes’.

It  must have been a school day when Father returned, because neither my older brother nor my older sister came with us to meet the plane. I remember we walked out onto the tarmac. I remember Mom’s excitement as the flight approached. I remember how it increased as the men began to step off the plane, each in combat fatigues. I looked, but I could not see my father among the first few, nor the few that came after.

And then Mother’s excitement seemed to boil over. “There he is,” she shouted, “Do you see him?”

I didn’t.

She kept pointing at someone in the line of men in green combat fatigues, but I didn’t recognize my father among any them at all. I still didn’t recognize the man that actually walked up, hugged and kissed my mother. I had no idea who he was.

I remember staring up at him and wondering if this really was the man in the pictures at home. And that’s when it dawned on me. What I could not remember at the time was ever having seen him in person. I had of course, but it had been too far back in time. Perhaps half of my young life had passed since I had last seen this man. In the interim, he had become a voice on the phone, a series of pictures, and a person given form and meaning largely through Mother’s words.

The man in front of me at just that moment was not wearing a dress uniform as he had been in all those pictures, and that was enough to throw me completely. I studied his face to see if I could recognize something there, but I just couldn’t see it. Father to me was a broad brimmed officer’s hat and a uniform full of fancy decorations. Standing there without them, this man could have been anybody. It was an awfully odd moment, staring up at a man already a part of my world and realizing that I didn’t know him at all. At the moment, I had only my mother’s word upon which to hang my belief that this was my father.

Thankfully, she was right.

He turned out to be a very good one.