September 22, 1968 my life path changed forever. It was the day my dad was killed in Vietnam — he was 36. He was due to return the first week in January 1969, and was about three months shy of completing his tour in combat.
I was an 11-year-old boy with the whole world in front of me. I looked forward to him being my football and baseball coach again and spending the year we had lost, such as fishing.
Not until the final Prisoner of War was released from the Vietnam prison camps and returned home in 1973 did the reality of life without my dad sink in.
Five long years I kept up hope that there had been some mistake, but it was no mistake.
As a then 16-year-old, life had already changed and all I had were memories of my dad, but I really knew very little about his life, other than he was my dad and that he died to protect his family and his country.
My father liked to fish. He would order those rod and reel packages through mail order. The one with lures, tackle boxes and everything you needed to be a successful fisherman — until you actually had to use it.
My dad reminded me of Darren McGavin (Mr.Parker) in “A Christmas Story” when Parker got his infamous leg lamp, when my dad received his “fishing package.” But, it doesn’t stop there. He reminded me of Parker again (when the leg lamp broke) after we got out on the creek and made his first cast. He had to untangle and disassemble reels and try to get his lures unstuck from the tree branch protruding from the middle of the creek.
If my mom only knew the language he used.
Even writing this brings a warm memory — and a smile, although diminished by the loss.
Years later, missing pieces about my dad’s life were revealed to me during a family reunion in Illinois.
It was a first for me with my dad’s side of the family, although we had visited cousins, aunts and uncles since his death.
But, this reunion gave me the opportunity to ask questions of my great aunts and uncles on the life of my father and they shared stories about his life — a life I really didn’t know.
I was surprised by the stories they told — stories that brought me closer to my dad than I had ever been and the stories about their lives and hardships during a time I could only read about in history books.
One great aunt, my grandmothers sister, was the spitting image in both looks and voice of my grandmother, who died in 1966 — I truly felt like I was sitting at that picnic table talking to my grandmother telling me stories about my dad.
My great uncle, who organized the reunion, told me stories only an uncle would tell his nephew. He passed away in 2013 at age 92.
All of those great aunts and uncles are gone, but, their history and their lives live on through the many of us who attended that 1993 reunion.
My last memory of the reunion was the large family photo that was taken. I remember gathering for the photo and looking out over my large extended family and what that one trip to Illinois meant to me then and today.
In my mind I can see the weathered smiling faces, knowing deep down their lives weren’t always rosy, but they persevered and continued to give everything they had to their family.
Little did I know it was the last time I would see most of the older generations. In retrospect, I wished the reunion would have lasted forever. I would have given anything to be able to sit down and visit with my great aunt for days on end — not just because she was my grandmother reincarnate, but because she knew the most about my dad and she had her own great stories to tell.
There is no amount of thanks I could offer that would ever repay what she gave to me that day in 1993, I just wished I could have been there to give back to her what she gave to me.
Often many forget their elderly relatives, when they should be embracing them. First, because they are family. Secondly, because they have seen the world through the eyes of many and are able to pass on family history that many of us would not otherwise ever have the opportunity to learn.
But most importantly, because each of us owe them for their love and sacrifices over the years.
That 1993 reunion showed me even as the circle of life was closing in on some, they were all still givers … just as I remember them being when I was growing up … some things never change about the love and grace of those who have loved us over the years and showed us the way to shine.
Dedicated to lives Harland “Hop” Conner June 14, 1921-July 7, 2013 and Minnie Mae Conner, April 12, 1925-March 31, 2002. May you rest in peace. Thank you for your loving stories and memories of the missing pieces of my father’s life. We, Conners’ and Peeler’s alike, are better for you being a part of our lives.