Today is Veterans Day, a U.S. official holiday observed annually on November 11th to honor veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Veterans like my father.
Flipping through my dad’s old photo albums this past week, I found this snapshot of him taken in Cold Bay in the Aleutian Islands in 1943. During World War II, he served there as a soldier for the U.S. Army.
Seeing him squatting down, perhaps smoking or looking at an unusual-looking tundra plant, triggered a fond old memory in me.
It was the summer of 1959. I was eight years old.
Sitting in shorts on the coved rim of our swimming pool, I could feel the warm concrete on my legs as my father skimmed the yellow and brown fallen leaves that were floating on top of the water with a long metal strainer. His slow, graceful movements hypnotized me.
He pulled the strainer out of the pool once he’d completed his job and leaned it up against one of our redwood cabanas. Momentarily disappearing into the tiny building, he returned with a package of cigarettes, his shiny silver lighter, and a handful of what looked like throwaway scraps of paper.
He squatted down next to me, just as he’s doing in the WWII photo. After weighting down his pile of papers with a small river rock he grabbed from the nearby gravel bed, he lit his cigarette and inhaled it deeply. The flinty smell of his fancy lighter tickled my nose as I watched him blow his smoke in the opposite direction.
“We’re going to make paper chains today!” he announced.
I knew exactly what he was talking about. The girls at school created these magical-looking chains out of discarded gum wrappers. I’d wanted to learn how to do it myself but was too shy to ask them for instructions.
But I was lucky enough to have a father who’d teach me, though with old cigarette package wrappers. He must have been saving them for this special day.
Unfolded now and flattened out, they were ready to be transformed. I thought he might have even pressed them with a warm iron since the creases barely showed. He handed me one and took one for himself.
“Now watch me carefully, Laurie,” he said. “And do exactly what I do.”
I did. Each time he folded his piece of paper, I folded mine the same way, sometimes in halves, other times in thirds or fourths.
“Okay, now you’re ready to loop yours around mine,” he said. “See, just like this.”
Loop by loop, the red, black, and white paper chain created out of my father’s Lucky Strike cigarette packages emerged. I’d finally discovered my classmates’ secret to fastening the loops together without using glue or scotch tape. Once it got to be about a foot long, though, I began to wonder about its purpose.
“What are we supposed to do with it, Daddy?”
“Well, I think we just appreciate it because it’s so beautiful.”
I had to think about that for a minute. But I supposed I agreed. It was striking. It really didn’t need another purpose.
In January of 1944, from his post in the Aleutian Islands, Dad wrote to my mother about another “art” project he’d created.
“Glad you liked the Christmas card which I made for you. It was rather amateurish, but I enjoyed making it. The pressed leaves were some I plucked from among the tundra moss. They had been touched by frost so as to make them red, and I got them at just the right time.”
In the photo of my father from that time, I can see him stooping down and focused, perhaps discovering beauty in that cold, bleak northern landsape just as he did with me and the paper chains made from old cigarette wrappers the following decade.
Throughout my lifetime, I watched my father create his own kind of art out of things that most people probably wouldn’t value.
Was it a way to see the beauty and value in himself, I’ve wondered, a gay man bullied and arrested for his sexual orientation and later discarded by society?
I’d like to think he found this kind of value in me, too, his shy, sensitive secondborn who felt blessed to have a daddy who taught her how to make paper chains out of throwaway packaging…just because.
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming eventually to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.