Note: My father, Emmett Lee, died July 1, 2014, a month following this original Memorial Day letter to President Obama, only days before the rapid decline that ended his life. As a Veteran’s Day celebration of his pride in service and love of country, I’ve reposted. He leaves a dwindling league of WWII Veterans, now forever free from the tyranny of suffering, illness and old age. At his deathbed, holding his wrist to feel his defiant pulse as he lay unresponsive, I repeated the mantra “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The words became a calming prayer, for me, an only child losing her last parent. I hope it was, somehow, an encouragement for him to unleash his gentle spirit from his battered body. And to rest at last, in heavenly peace.
“In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice, the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
To: Barak Obama, President and Commander-in-Chief
The United States of America
Dear Mr. President:
With no political agenda beyond the spirit of Veteran’s Day, I write to salute one American veteran, 89-year-old Emmett Lloyd Lee. An avid, yet self-described “inept” WWII soldier, his 70 years of post-war public service embodies Roosevelt’s call to “choose the path of social justice, faith, hope and love toward all.”
As Mr. Lee’s only child, I’m compelled to write what he would consider a highly presumptuous intrusion on your time.
Yet time waits for no one. Old soldiers die. My father fades away. “I don’t need an occupational therapist, I need a death therapist,” he says, of home health care visits.
Blinded by his dimming light that guided me through life, I speak of his inimitable character, honesty and selflessness. So rare in our increasingly self-absorbed society, his life story should be known and celebrated, though he would not agree.
Knowing your unfailing sense of comedic timing, I trust that you’ll enjoy my father’s lifelong humor, worthy of a proposed Reality Show; BEDPANS & DEADPANS – (working title-his idea)
“Emmett’s so honest it makes me puke,” said Gerald, his pre-deceased (not so honest) brother. As Emmett joined the army, Gerald joined the circus, followed by a stellar career as journalist and alcoholic. “He thinks he’s Diogenes – Athens’s one honest man.”
June, 1943: Emmett Lee, 18 years old, eagerly reports to Selective Service in Hayneville, Ala., where he miserably fails the eyesight test, and is rejected. Undeterred, he procures a standardized eye chart, and through coke-bottle lens glasses, memorizes, down to the minuscule lines, unreadable even for 20/20’s.
July, 1943: Emmett, sans glasses, gropes his way back for another try. In anxious anticipation, with racing heart, he aces the eye exam, only to be diagnosed with a heart murmur. Rejected yet again.
July, 1943: Desperate, in a rare moment of questionable honesty, Emmett procures a “nerve pill” from Aunt Mattie’s medicine drawer and returns, for a third effort. Sedated, with eyesight memorization intact, he is accepted. Eureka. God Bless America.
1943 -1945 After extended stateside service, Emmett marries Frances Bass, my mother, and ships out to the Philippines the next day.
* A note on Mom, born 1923 Died 2012, his wife of 68 years
During Dad’s deployment, Mom served our country in Panama City, Florida’s shipyards, as Head of the Blueprint Department.
“Rosie the Riveter, are you kidding? I’d never seen a blueprint in my life,” she always said.
“It was her strapless blue print sundress, not her blueprint expertise that landed the job,” Dad added, still jealous 60 years later.
Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, Dad fights a foe more daunting than the Axis Powers – his own ineptitude.
“I was a terrible soldier,” he says. “I couldn’t learn manly things, like tying knots. Marching uphill, I kept hearing ‘plunk, plunk,’ behind me. At the top, I realized every single item had fallen out of my backpack and rolled downhill, to the amusement of my fellow troops.
Unsurprisingly, firearms were not his forte.
“We practiced pounding a rifle butt on enemy targets. I didn’t know to use the sharp edge, so I pummeled away with the flat part and broke my whole gun in two. It was payday, and I felt undeserving of my $20 a month, with an limp, impotent rifle,” he says.
Lacking a G.I.’s gruff demeanor, he was berated while guarding Japanese prisoners, providing not only food, but also cherished extras.
“Hey Buddy, you giving cigarettes to Japs?” says a fellow soldier.
“Do you have to be American to want a smoke?” Dad thinks, but remains silent.
Aboard ship heading home, he rips his wife’s letters into tiny pieces and flings them into the Pacific Ocean.
“Wouldn’t somebody (me) maybe want to read them?” I ask.
“Good Lord, NO,” he says. “Too racy.” I suspect a kiss qualifies in his definition of racy, but photos of their reunion suggest more active duty on the home front.
POST WAR SERVICE
More suited to civilian life, my father settles into teaching History, while Mother teaches English, both in public schools. Pursuing advanced degrees, Dad climbs to Assistant Superintendent- Mom a guidance and rehabilitation counselor.
I’m having a Bullet Point Moment here, Mr. President. Dad’s civilian service is so vast, so Ben Franklinesque, I fear that you will nod off if I don’t condense and highlight immediately.
* As city councilman during the 90’s, Dad proposed a 50 percent pay cut for himself and fellow Forest Park, GA officials as a good faith gesture to the local citizenry. It’s a rare American politician who values good will over a dollar bill. (By unanimous (minus one) vote, the proposal failed.)
* He donates $50 every day to a staggering number of charities, ranging from the Red Cross and CARE to Adopt a Humpback Whale that he has yet to meet, but affectionately calls “Old Moby.” Dad’s personal contributions could significantly put a dent in the national debt
* And yet, he deducts a pittance of his charitable giving, and is “honored” to pay exponentially more taxes than required.
* He refuses to collect Social Security, though he paid into it, claiming he has “too much money,” and doesn’t want to dip into benefits of future generations.
* Frugal to a fault, he purchases only Gorton’s Frozen Fish Sticks, green grapes and Preparation H. He treasures, though resists, buying rubber bands, socks and underwear, using a paper clip to re-size his ancient boxer shorts. His 25-year-old pants that nicely fit his former 200-pound physique are now tattered trousers that slide down his 144 pounds. Often, he holds them up by the crotch, qualifying him as the ‘Lil Wayne of the Geriatric Set.
* Post-Mortem Note: He would be horrified that I selected a Hugo Boss suit, white dress shirt with French Cuffs and yellow silk tie for his burial, spending more on his death attire than his last 20 years of daily clothing.
* He obsessively supports the U.S. Post Office, panics when low on stamps, or mail isn’t delivered. Can’t fathom “saving a stamp,” and has no clue what “going online” means. “Does the Internet talk?” he recently asked me.
* Personally delivered Meals on Wheels, with his small grandchildren in tow for years, yet was informed that, though homebound, he doesn’t “qualify” to receive them.
* A partial list of service organizations that he has served as president/chairman/board member/lifetime achiever/ etc., include:
* American Legion, American Cancer Society, American Heart Society, The Red Cross, National Library Board, Mentor, Clayton County School school children in need; Community Service Board Chairman, Retired Teachers Association, Parent Teacher Association. Kiwanis. P.T.A. Council on Aging and more. Received Keys to the City and Emmett Lee Day proclaimed by Mayor Matt Simons for outstanding civic service.
* In bipartisan spirit, I must inform you that Emmett Lee was named “Democrat of the Year” by the State Democratic Party of Georgia, in 1975.
I could go on, but you get the idea. He follows the tradition of our American family, dating back to Joseph Hill, b. 1709 in Virginia, that includes veterans of the American Revolution, The Civil War, WWI and WWII.
My father’s “double first cousin” (it’s a Southern thing, but not incestuous) Thomas Hinman Moorer served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1974, and Chief of Naval Operations from 1967 to 1970. Joshua Hill, U.S. senator and Union sympathizer, is said to have convinced General W.T. Sherman to spare the town of Madison, Ga. during his highly inflammatory March to the Sea.
Skeletons also rattle this family tree, including suicides, scoundrels, bums and criminals.
But my father, humble to a fault, has only kind words for all, avoids conflict and complaints, even when warranted.
Last month, firemen burst into his apartment at 3 a.m., dragged and dumped him on cold pavement, resulting in a spine fracture, trauma and memory loss that led to his death.
For this false alarm, unreported by him, he was promptly billed, and paid, $75 for fatal “medical treatment,” with no complaint. In constant pain, nearly immobile and “nuts” as he says, he must now move to “The Booby Hatch,” as he calls Assisted Living, or leave this thing called “L.I.F.E.”
Post-Mortem Note: (He avoided the 5,000 per month out of pocket cost without veterans or government assistance, which he neither expects nor wants. But his medical care, which I found patronizing, deplorable and cruel, before I threw a fit in the hallway floor, screaming at inept, maddening personnel, cost nearly $1 million.
“All I want to take with me is my Armed Service Record, (taped on his wall) and my clock,” he says. “I would take my wedding ring and Betty Grable’s autograph, but I think I might have thrown them overboard.”
If you’re still reading, Mr. President, bless you. I’m know you’re inundated, I’m in hopes that this might prove that at least one man upheld the values of our country
Emmett L. Lee c/o Georgia Lee, daughter
2401 Waterford Cove
Decatur, Ga. 30033
Cell Phone: 404-274-9030 (Laid off two days after Dad’s injury, I have no work number at present. Sorry.)
Seriously Mr. President, please accept our undying admiration and support as you continue to “choose justice, faith, hope and love toward our fellow (Americans,) in days of difficulty.”
I leave you with the words that I wrote to my father, in our devastation following my Mother’s death.
“Never, never, never give up.” – Winston Churchill
p.s. My father’s words, while I helped put him to bed in his last nights at hone:
“I take my orders I take my pill
I turn over in bed and Fart at Will
“Who is Will?” He asks, as he falls into sleep, perchance to dream…