Veterans in the Family

Spiritual Smart Aleck


It will be the day after Veterans’ Day when this essay hits print, so I am going to ramble on about the veterans in my family.

My grandfather, Percy Litchfield, served in World War I. Where, and doing what, I do not know. I never got to know Percy, possibly because of his last wife, Sally. Sally was not the warm grandma type. She was a businesswoman. She ran a brothel. That’s where Percy met her.

My mother always called her, “That old madam,” but I did not understand until years later that she really was a member of the oldest profession. Sally married Percy, and after he died, she inherited a lifetime income from the ranch. The ranch would not pass on to Percy’s four children (Thelma, John, Lois, and Vivian or “Chick” as everyone called her) until Sally died.
Sally outlived Percy by thirty years, and by that time my father, John, was dead, and my cousins Nancy and Charlotte’s mother, Chick, was dead, meaning that when Sally died, my grandfather’s legacy went to the spouses of the deceased and their children, and Thelma and Lois, our aunts.

“Is Sally dead yet?” became a running joke among us. That question sums up waiting for someone to die so your life will improve. Not attractive, but we made each other laugh.
My father, John Litchfield, was 29 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. A few months later he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and stayed in for the duration. He became a captain, was assigned to an ordinance group, and was deployed to Australia and then the Philippines, where, my mother told me, he did a lot of “hurry up and wait.”

Apparently, that is the nature of a lot of military life.

Then there is my brother, Allen. He was drafted in 1964 and ended up at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana. He served bravely, teaching shorthand to Army clerks. Shorthand is not used anymore. It went out with the typewriter and the phone booth. Allen met his wife, Barbara, there, though, and that turned out well.

My husband Rick’s father, Mark, was an Army lifer. That is why Rick lived in Japan, Austria, and Germany, as well as the United States, while growing up. Rick loved being an Army brat. He considered himself a citizen of the world.

Mark was in intelligence where he saw and learned a lot more than people should see or learn. He lived to be 91 and took most of his knowledge to the grave. He did tell us about playing poker while sitting on a nuclear bomb in an airplane flying a zig zag route over Europe to avoid the airspace of countries that did not allow nuclear weapons in their sky.

My husband, Rick Tuel, was in the Naval Reserve for eight years, one of those years spent on active duty aboard a ship in the Tonkin Gulf doing search and rescue (North SARs) for the pilots who made it out to the gulf in their wounded jets.

The closest Rick came to dying in Vietnam was when his chief sent him out to dump garbage cans during a storm. Rick tied a rope around his waist and tied the other end to the guard rail in case he got washed overboard.

Which he did. But the rope saved his life.

Or did it? When he told me that story, he said he could swear that someone grabbed him from behind and pulled him back up onto the ship.

Then there was the time they shot off a missile that went rogue and flew between the ship’s masts before ditching in the ocean. That could have been bad.

Rick couldn’t get an Agent Orange-related pension when he needed it because in 1991 the government stopped paying pensions to Navy vets who served offshore (blue water sailors), on the specious theory that being at sea they were not exposed to Agent Orange. They were exposed, though, because Agent Orange ran down rivers to the gulf, where ships sucked up contaminated saltwater and desalinated it, turning it into potable water that had a concentrated level of Agent Orange.

America, to this day, has its eyes closed and its ears covered regarding blue water sailors. Occasionally a bill to provide pensions for blue water sailors reaches Congress, where it is either rejected, or dies when Congress adjourns that session.

So there ya go, a handful of regular guys who served during WW1, WW2, the Korean War, and Vietnam, and a little bit in peacetime. The military was a rite of passage for most young American men for a long time, but no more. My sons never knew the terror of the draft lottery. I did not mind that.