On Veterans Day I always think of my dad, an Arizona cowboy the US Navy sent to the South Pacific. The nineteen-year-old went from rounding up cattle in the wide open spaces of the northwestern Arizona desert to riding herd on two big diesel engines in the claustrophobic confines of a submarine. Dad always preferred horsepower to horses, so when he was discharged from the Navy at the end of WWII he didn’t go back to the ranch on the banks of the Colorado River. Instead he married his childhood sweetheart and moved to town to make three Baby Boomer children and his fortune in the automotive business.
Dad loved to tell his submarine stories and reminisce with other vets at the monthly American Legion Post meetings. On November 11, Veterans Day, before sunrise, Dad got out of bed, put on his blue and gold Legion garrison cap with Squawjame Post 14 in gold embroidery, and hurried from the house. With me usually begging to go along.
“Please, please, Dad. I wanna watch you blow down the tombstones.”
“Sorry, honey, no girls allowed. Reveille Club members only.” Dad gave me a wink and a smile, jumped in his pickup and drove away into the cold, windy dark.
About an hour later, just at official sunrise, eleven huge booms, one after another, rocked the entire town. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the Legionnaire’s weren’t at the cemetery giving the dead an eleven cannon salute. Dad and the Reveille Club boys were launching mortar rounds from the courthouse steps. No tombstones or honored dead were ever in danger during the Kingman Veterans Day proceedings. That can’t be said of the Reveille Club members who always gathered in the Legion Post bar for after-salute drinks and war stories, while the Legion Auxiliary women prepared their annual pancake breakfast in Post’s kitchen.
When I was eight or nine my parents volunteered me to serve at the Legion breakfast, carrying juice, coffee, cooked to order eggs, bacon and stacks of pancakes to hungry Legionnaires and townspeople crowding into long tables covered with white butcher paper. Usually, the first to weave in direct from the Post bar was an elderly man in a very tight wool navy blue sailor’s uniform. His white t-shirt covered belly squished out from the bottom of his jumper as his old-fashioned dark wool flat hat sporting a navy ribbon around the crown slipped down over one ear. The timeworn sailor had a sweet smile and friendly bloodshot eyes. He grabbed the back of the folding chair, squared up with it and lowered himself. Once he was anchored on the seat, his eyelids drifted shut and the slow listing began — to starboard, back to midship and over to port. I set his plate and coffee down in front of him and lightly touched his shoulder to wake him. His eyelids rose to half-mast and he grinned, reaching for his cup.
“Down the hatch,” he slurred and fell face first into his short stack and scrambled eggs.
The well-oiled veteran in a doughboy uniform sitting next to him reached over with his left hand, pulled the old sailor out of his pancakes and held him back in his chair with one arm. The doughboy continued to shovel eggs into his own mouth while the sailor had a catnap behind his fellow veteran’s protective arm. No one seemed to mind or be offended by the public though usually quite polite drunkenness of the old warriors. Instead, they were treated with respect and affection on their one day to be honored for their service—Veterans Day in northwestern Arizona.