Lynn Hall column: Better late than never?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 31, 2019

I’m a little ashamed to admit that while my dad just turned 96, up until my visit this past week, we had had very little discussion about his military service. The first night I was home, we happened to be sitting down in his office talking about a new writing project he had started. In the process we got onto military service and he told me about being a student at Texas Tech in Lubbock in 1943 when a recruiter came to campus looking for engineering students for meteorology school. My father wasn’t anxious to leave school but was persuaded it was the right time and so he joined the Air Force.

After boot camp in Oklahoma, he was sent to Florida for a cadet training program for meteorology and from there was among a small group sent to the actual meteorology training program. From there, the field was narrowed and he was moved into intelligence. Shipped off to England, he was assigned to the photo intelligence detachment. American pilots would fly along the northern coast of France taking photo after photo. This would allow the intelligence officers to view them stereographically. “It was amazing what we were able to see in those photographs” my dad told me. “We could see airstrips and even V-1 missile launch sites, which Allied forces were then able to attack.”

Some 12 days after D-Day, my father’s unit was moved across the channel to set up camp on the beach of northern France in what were naturally very rough circumstances and conditions. But this is where his story became the perfect tale of the kind of man my father is.

First of all, he hates being dirty and likes things clean and tidy. The group was set up near an old stone barn near a small landing field. It was sandy and wet and extremely miserable if you don’t like to be that way.

Being engineering students, my dad and a fellow soldier were able to commandeer a metal can from the kitchen detail, punch holes in the bottom and suspend it from a tree. Water from a blister bag was diverted to the can and they how had a shower out in the middle of a field.

Still not completely happy with their living situation, my dad was able to get four sea-ration cans and another larger can and build his own washing machine. The four cans were attached on pieces of wood and placed into a larger can. He then added a pole to the internal contraption and a handle. The next step was filling the larger can with water and adding whatever bit of soap they had. He would build a small fire under the can to heat the water and dirty clothes were placed inside. Moving the handle up and down, he was able to create a sort of pounding action that apparently did a decent job of cleaning.

My dad said word spread and one day a major for another unit came down to their site in order to wash his clothes.

I love this story and it really is a perfect way to help describe him. He was always building things to make life easier. He built special cabinets to accommodate tools, he built pieces of furniture, designed and built several different styles of easel looking for the perfect one when he was doing a lot of portrait painting. When he was working for a carbon black company back in the 1960s, he came up with a new design for a reactor that was patented and then licensed by other companies. He built a sailboat when I was in middle school and after he retired, he built and flew three airplanes.

After I retired and starting spending time with him in Kentucky, he wanted a project and we built rocking horses for all of my grandsons.

My dad is an amazing man. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but these last few years have been a wonderful opportunity for us to get to know each other — maybe for the first time — and appreciate our differences. He’s taught me many things. I reminded him of a poem he used to recite to me when I was younger: “If a task is first begun, never leave it ‘til it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well, or not at all.”

He says he can’t remember teaching that to me, but I’ve never forgotten it and repeat it often.

I’m not sure how many more birthdays are ahead for my dad, but I hope there will be more. We’ve had a long road to get where we are today, and I’d like it last a while longer.