May 29, 2006

Memorial Day and contingency

The uncle I never met, Leo Dorn, was the second child of Philip and Gertrude Dorn, about seven years younger than Murray and seven years older than Al (my father). As an adolescent, he never really got along with my grandfather, and he enlisted in WW2 in part as a way to get away from home.

He died March 25, 1945, in Belgium. I don't think there was a well-known battle there (the allies had recently crossed the Rhine after capturing the Remagen bridge). He was buried in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, at the American Cemetery. My father was 12, almost 13, and my uncle was in his 20s at the time. Leo's death dramatically changed my father's life.

Not only did my father lose a brother that day, but my grandfather (along with several other family members) became determined not to see my father enlist and put himself in the same type of danger. Being a good student, my father was pushed to enroll in college (the first in his family) and go to medical school. At the time, college attendance and my father's later enrollment in medical school deferred his military service. (He entered the Air Force in the late 1950s and served his tour as the base pediatrician in the incredibly dangerous hotspot of the world, George AFB in Victorville, California, where my oldest sister was born.) The spouse of one of his relatives, Bernie Annenberg, had recommended the University of Vermont, where my father met my mother (and later attended medical school).

Sometimes on Memorial Day (and Veterans Day), we forget the ambiguities and contingencies involved in military service, even in a war clearly thought of as necessary at the time. Not all motives in joining were pure, and the deaths of soldiers had complex effects on their families. I'm sure my uncle was patriotic and joined in part because he wanted to do something for the war, but it was also to get away from his father. It's quite possible that my father would have gone to college without Leo's death, but my grandfather became contrite about his childrearing and how he valued (or undervalued) his sons in part because of it. I knew nothing about it when I was a young child. I only knew my grandfather as a doting man who loved us and whose enduring trait was always having a bag of M&Ms when he came (something that irritated my mother no end at the time—until she became a doting grandmother). And I knew my Uncle Bernie (Annenberg) as a retired high school science teacher who took the Radio Shack toy method of teaching us about science (oh, and taking some moderately explosive chemicals into my fourth-grade class to make a "volcano"). (Bernie Annenberg also taught me how to ride a bike, in part by trying to convince me that a spinning bicycle wheel would make a bike hard to fall over on its side—ever the science teacher.) Not until after their deaths did I learn of what happened before and after Leo's death to make possible my father's college attendance at the University of Vermont, his meeting my mother, and ultimately my own existence.

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Posted in History on May 29, 2006 7:30 AM |