I pushed the cart out of the oil aisle and turned towards the end cap of books. Woodman’s grocery store stocks a few hardbacks that I check out. My eye was drawn to The Storm on Our Shores.I flipped it open and saw it was about how the Japanese landed on Attu Island and 11,000 Americans landed to fight them and retake the land. My eyes watered. I don’t cry easily these days, but there I was in the middle of the grocery store, pulling cans off the shelf, weeping on Mother’s Day. (I dislike Mother and Father’s day. We chose not to have children. Our parents are gone. Our animals don’t make us parents. There’s no fancy dinner for Bruce and me.)
As I wheeled my cart around the store, I blinked back my tears. It’s not like me to cry. My father. I thought of my father on Mother’s day. He was in the ski troops, and until I found The Last Ridge, I didn’t think much of his service. But after reading that book I saw how he was part of an elite group trained in mountain warfare. He told his stories when I was not much older than a toddler. He hated camping because of how strenuous his winter training was, so we never went to the lake as a family, set up a tent, and swatted mosquitoes together.
I don’t think he fought at Attu. He always said they were sent to Kiska but the Japanese were gone by then. Talking to his very little girl he joked that he scared them off. But Kiska is next to Attu. And my memory could well be wrong about where he fought. I was a toddler when I was asking these questions, the war fresh on his mind. I have no one to ask. Eerily I got his middle name wrong. As a young woman I thought it was Jacob. I even named my Rottweiler this–Jacob Cain–as a bow to my dad, those months right after he died. But his true middle name was Joseph. And the ground slipped like slick mud under my feet.
Watching the 60 Minutes report on The Storm on Our Shores showed what kind of terrain makes up the Aleutian islands–starkly beautiful with mountains rising around sweeping valleys and wildflowers, tall grasses. It was not the wintery, desolate place I imagined. My tears welled again as I heard the story of a Japanese surgeon who had studied in America but who was conscripted to fight by the Japanese, who wound up on Attu. He along with others had captured a mortar and were slain by two Americans tossing a hand grenade at the end of the conflict. The Japanese who survived the battle lined up and committed suicide with their hand grenades.
The story continued by talking about how Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi had written a diary in the days before he died and how Dick Laird found it and it was translated and passed around by GI’s who realized how human the other side was. The diary flew in the face of their being told that the Japanese were firebreathing, fierce monsters. They saw that Tatsuguchi was a family man with faith in the Christian God like many Americans. One of the GI’s found Tatsuguchi’s Bible and gave it to his daughter. I recognized a Scofield bible like the one I had as a child.
As beautiful as Attu is, and possibly worthy of fighting for, the story made me hate war all the more. Men who weren’t all that different fighting to protect their country, that was different then theirs. In the 60 Minutes interview Tatsuguchi’s daughter forgave Dick Laird who had nightmares over killing her father. And it wasn’t cheap forgiveness because she was very angry after he announced he was the one who killed her father at her doorstep. Maybe that’s the reason for my tears, that the story we’re trending to, is a story of reconciliation. I find myself occasionally praying for the healing of broken relationships. After all St. Paul calls us to be ministers of reconciliation because God is reconciling the world to himself. This is the ultimate love story, a miracle story I’ve witnessed in my own life when two enemies–myself and my mother-in-law made peace.
Or maybe the story brought me close to my dad who has been gone close to forty years. The war took its toll on him even though he claimed he didn’t see combat. He had a half moon scar as wide as a bandaid along his knee. He said he’d injured it during training and was pulled away from the fiasco of Mount Belvedere where the Tenth Mountain division shot up each other in a fog of war. He said the Japanese knew he was coming and had fled Kiska. He showed me his carbine and an empty mortar shell and a jar full of pins.
The Army sent all 3,000 of the Ski Troops to Kiska, two weeks after the battle of Attu. Attu was the second bloodiest battle of the war and they expected most of these specially trained forces not to make it. The Japanese had colonized Kiska with tunnels and mortar stations and resupply points, but despite the blockade around it, they snuck off the island. My dad was right. But what he didn’t say was how the fog set in, how terrifying it was to wait for the enemy to pick them off. He didn’t say how they had to be trained in a water landing, how they were more a danger to each other and trigger happy, frightened fingers.
But that knee brought pain when he did stuff with my brother and I. His taking us for hikes in the ravines in our neighbor’s pasture was a big deal, the shale cliffs looming over us. We saw the hill where we dumped our trash until garbage pick up came our way. It was a big deal for him to take us to cut our Christmas tree on the other hill. And he could barely take us to the high school pool in the summer for swimming. But medicine improved and he was in less pain as an older man than he was as a young man.
As a very young girl I remember him short tempered, impatient with my tears. (If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.) He’d stomp the accelerator, to speed, my brother and I crying out at how out of control he seemed. The pines on Font Grove Road flew by pretty fast. Looking back I wonder if he was suffering from PTSD from his experiences on Kiska and the rigors of mountain training in the dead of winter at Camp Hale, Colorado.
The story goes that he understood in his heart what it meant for God to give up his son, when he topped a hill on Font Grove Road, because he loved his own son that much, and what it meant to offer that sacrifice for us. He gave up alcohol and joined the board of the Albany Rescue mission. He grew calmer, kinder as the years rolled by.
My dad made several trips west on Route 20 to Esperance to buy my horse, Whisper. He showed me how God grants his children the desires of their hearts because he put them there. That horse carried me back into those ravines we walked when I was a young girl. And my dad used to pray with me on our way to riding lessons in Albany, when I was so terrified of the trainer’s screams because I asked the horse to take the big jump and fly. Some of those people we prayed for know the Lord today.
The last time I spoke to my father was after my first night in Lynchburg, Virginia. We were in a motel where our bedrooms opened to the outside. I sat on my bed and told him how I hated being there, how I’d gone to a party and they looked at me strangely because of the dress he and I had picked out. I was accompanying Francis and Edith Schaeffer on a book tour. I was young, raw, but my company and the Schaeffers trusted me with the task. I’d organized a tour around the country, set up the media contacts, arranged airline tickets. Looking back I can’t believe I pulled that off. But I was scared of the radicalism of Falwell. My dad said he loved me, that he was proud of me.
The next day I went to church and watched the lights in my mother’s engagement ring as the preacher ranted. Falwell met with the Schaeffers and I at his house and talked about setting up pregnancy care centers. When I stopped to check messages at the hotel desk, I knew he was gone. There was message after message to call my brother, to call my aunt, to call, call, call. My fingers could barely dial the phone.
The Schaeffers prayed for me. The whole church prayed for me and my family. The ground slipped out from under my feet. I lifted my heart in the gospel song, “The Lord knows the way through the wilderness. All I have to do is follow. I still have the Valentine’s I bought for him–“I love you this much” and the card stretched out.
Here’s what I wrote in The River Caught Sunlight as I imagined those hours, an imagination that feels more like vision. In the story the character, Janice, is sitting in Liberty Baptist church hearing a sermon about how being knocked down in the fight was a sin. She will soon get the news her father has died.
“She read more of Jesus’ words. “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in Heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
“Janice imagined herself still on the rock ledge. Somewhere beyond the lip, a man was coming; she could hear the ropes and pitons clanking as he walked. He was calling her name. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him. If he hears you, you’ve got him back. If he doesn’t get someone to go with you. Confront him then. What you forgive, you forgive. What you curse will be cursed.”
“Then a rush of rope hurled, snaking over the rock ledge. ‘Knot it around your waist,’ the man whose voice sounded like a rifle shot across a creek, shouted. Jim? The man Jeremiah and Dennis hated? ‘Keep coming up.’ My God the view. Like the drive she took to northwestern Illinois, where the land glowed from inside—luminescent greens and blues, the sky bubbling with white clouds that were about sunlight, not yet about rain. Like cultivated fields rolling up and rolling down, men’s handiwork, working the land, making her yield food and beauty. Something about a garden that could put a woman’s soul back into her body. She’d made the right decision. She was going home.
“’Keep coming,’ the voice said, quietly.
“Janice imagined she stood up and grabbed the rope, the fibers burning her palm. She pulled it into herself. Of all people, it was her father, who rappelled down to her, and showed her how to wrap it and tie it to make a sling for her butt, to keep herself upright and balanced despite the pure, raw, terror she felt. Janice stepped over to the rock wall, began feeling for handholds, footholds. He said, “Here, put your foot here. Trust the tread on your boot.” She lifted her foot as if she were mounting a horse, stretched out her fingertips to a tiny hold. She pulled herself up, the rope pulled along with her. “I didn’t know you knew mountains,” she said.
“’Ski troops, 10th Mountain Division, same thing. I was well trained.’ Her dad as a young man, all power and force, exuding virility, a man who’d seen adventure. A hero. A warrior defending freedom and all that. And she’d never known. She’d only wanted to get away. He patted her cheek and grinned, her own frightened face reflecting in his mirrored sunglasses. ‘You’ll find your way to the top.’
“Janice opened her eyes. She saw the diamond imprint on the meat of her palm from her mother’s ring. She pushed it back to where it was supposed to be, showing the world its icy beauty, the commitment her father made to her mother, and that he made to her.”
If you’d like to read the entire River Caught Sunlight, you can find it here.
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