All my life, my father has outranked me.
He is Army Staff Sgt. Vincent “Jim” Lubrano, veteran of the Korean War. A valorous guy from the lawless Brooklyn that existed before artisan-beer brewers neutered the place, my father tried to take East Asian hills from people who really wanted to keep them.
The man earned the Combat Infantry Badge, which means people shot at him, and he shot back.
Once, during a mortar barrage, he dived to his right and banged up his knee. It aches even today at age 86, an arthritic memento of war. How strange it must be to feel a throb that reminds you, in clockable intervals, of the day you could have died.
I never went to war, being too young for Vietnam and too old for everything else. Just as well, my family has said, assuring me I’d never have made a good soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsman, or Marine.
“You would stick your nose into a cannon,” my late mother once said, summing me up, “and ask, ‘How does this work?’ ”
Being the un-enlisted son of a warrior has long made me feel like the lesser man. Sgt. Jim is the true-blue American tough guy, closer to whatever primordial fires forged us.
A quote mistakenly attributed to George Orwell and of unknown provenance goes, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Untested in battle, I have been under a blanket while men and women like my father stood on the line and did their duty.
I can never know whether I’d have performed like my dad: stalwart and steely-eyed, an Army-certified crack shot and a leader of men, dependable under the worst pressures imaginable.
Aside from a few stories, my father has been mum about what he saw between 1951 and 1953 with the Second Infantry Division in Korea. I’ve read that lots of military folks who witnessed war share that silence.
I’ve abhorred being spared the narrative; I always wanted the man to disclose. The least I could do to honor him would be to listen.
His reticence has long made me think he didn’t believe I could take it. Or maybe it’s as simple as not wanting to open a locked box shoved deep in the dark for so long.
Most Korean War memories my father has shared are Disney-benign:
Bivouacked in the field, he tried but failed to boil water in his helmet to cook pasta.
He’d be able to enjoy only a pignoli cookie or two from my grandmother’s care packages because barracks protocol dictated he share anything from home with his chop-licking brothers in arms.
He enjoyed hanging out with the French soldiers he met who’d mix water and wine in their canteens, and whimsy with their daily routines.
Amidst the fluffy reminiscences, though, there was one thing he mentioned that stuck with me.
On a rare quiet Sunday, a priest said Mass using the hood of a jeep for an altar. “We were right on the front lines,” my father told me. "The priest said to us that as bad as things were out there, there’d be harder things in life to face than battle.
“I never forgot that.”
I have no way of knowing if everyday sorrow and travail trump combat. All I see is that, since Korea, my father has watched his parents, his wife, and six siblings die. He’s suffered colon cancer, prostate cancer, and, two weeks ago, a heart attack.
Nobody’s shooting, but that sure sounds like someone under siege. The priest may have been right after all.
Throughout his hospital stay, though, my dad has been steady Sgt. Jim, undaunted by events, assuring those around him he could take on his cardiologist’s four heart stents like the man he is, then go home to watch westerns on his 30-year-old Sony.
Maybe it was the Army instructors who did this — showing my dad how to push through pain, stay sharp, stay strong. Maybe it was being under fire.
All I know for certain is that Sgt. Jim survives. It’s a priceless quality, one I’d like to emulate.
No, I don’t have war experience to draw on. But I can watch my father’s strength and grace, and learn. He has a lot to teach.