Navy father: ‘All is well with my soul’
December 27, 2017
Since retiring from military service more than eight years ago, I have continued to write articles on our veterans and their stories of service and sacrifice.
There's one story I missed over the years, and I regret I didn't have the clairvoyance decades ago to talk to this veteran and learn more about his service as a sailor aboard an LST in the South Pacific during the waning days of World War II. That man is my father, who died Aug. 4, 2001.
During the last part of his life, we weren't close. We didn't talk much, but I gave him updates on his grandchildren and entertained him with chitchat, so when he gasped for his last breath of air on a hot August morning in Carson City more than 16 years ago, I shed no tears. During his funeral service one week later and subsequent honors at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery, I didn't shed a tear. When I drove home afterward and entered my living room reflecting on the military honors, I glanced for a location in the bookcase for a resting place to hold that folded flag now in a plastic case. I still didn't shed a tear.
Over the years, though, my hardened feelings for my father softened and have progressed from anger to sympathy to respect. I didn't visit his grave often at the NNVMC, and if I did, I stayed for only minute and walked away. Still I did not shed a tear.
The Wreaths Across America project, where volunteers place beautiful Christmas wreaths with a red bow on veterans' graves, shows how a grateful nation remembers the sacrifices of our military men and women who donned the uniform and took an oath to protect this nation. My father's affirmation when taking the oath was no different than when I raised my right hand and repeated the same words in 1981, almost 37 years later after his enlistment.
For the past four years, I have written numerous newspaper articles on the Wreaths Across America project at the NNVMC, which the Nevada Veterans Coalition organizes every year. The first year I covered the event, I took a brisk walk to my father's grave and noticed a wreath had already been placed adjacent to his headstone. The same scenario played out in 2015 when I attend the ceremony, checked on my father's grave, said hello and moved on.
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Still, no tears.
From near ambivalence to his final resting place to a rediscovered concern, a change overcame me. During the 2016 wreath-placing ceremony, I specifically asked for a wreath to place on the skipper's grave. Before I followed other families at the cemetery so I could write down their heartfelt feelings of remembering their loved ones, I knelt at my father's grave and began talking to him. I cleaned the leaves and pine needles from the headstone and pulled out grass that extended onto the cold, steel slab. I placed the wreath near his name, told him I missed him and wished I knew more about his Navy years.
My father was not a very religious man, but he grew up in the Methodist Church and kept a copy of the Bible on his nightstand. When my children were young, and I was still in my 30s, we were baptized at a local church, coincidentally on Father's Day. We shared the love of one hymn, though. "It Is Well with My Soul" was written after a family experienced a tragic event when four daughters drowned at sea and how.
No matter how difficult our lives become with tragedy or the loss of a loved one, we look at our lot and are taught to say all is well with my soul. The day after placing a wreath on my father's grave, my pastor, unbeknown to me, had selected two hymns for the day … "It Is Well with My Soul and "Eternal Father" … the Navy hymn, appropriate for my Navy father.
My body stiffened. I couldn't move, and as we sang the first hymn, tears rolled down my cheeks, the first time I cried for my father since he died in 2001. That day singing the hymn changed me, yet I can't explain the coincidences of my visits to the NNVMC and the appearance of the two hymns. Like a guiding light showing me the way, I began to obtain more information about my father and his veteran service, a project of which I'm still seeking additional details about his service.
Another situation arose three months ago in September when I attended a ceremony at the NNVMC to honor and recognize 27 veterans whose remains had recently been identified. After the ceremony, I took the 5-minute walk to my father's grave, cleaned his headstone, and talked to him. Two weeks later and again unbeknown to me, "All Is Well with My Soul" was one of the day's songs before the pastor's sermon.
The pull to learn about my father took a different twist. One of the Navy veterans I interviewed for our Veterans Day section served during the latter part of World War II. He was born in the same year as my father (1927), went into the Navy at the same time, reported to serve aboard an LST and sailed the seas in the western Pacific and north of the Philippines.
Two nights before this year's Wreaths Across America and working late at home to finish a veterans'-related story, I listened to albums featuring Christmas songs and hymns. Every time an album finished on my computer, three or four of them appeared for my continued selection of Yuletide music. After listening to more than an hour of music, another holiday album did not appear; instead, it was a single recording of "All Is Well with My Soul."
On a frigid Saturday morning earlier this week, I arrived at the NNVMC early and visited the skipper. We talked, I told him how his grandkids and great-grand kids were doing. Without hesitation, I knelt with one knee on the frosty grass and looked at him. "Dad, I miss you." My eyes became misty. Before leaving him to walk to the opening ceremony for Wreaths Across America, I thought to myself … "All Is Well with Our Souls."
But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
LVN Editor Emeritus Steve Ranson covers military and veterans' issues for the Nevada Appeal and Lahontan Valley News.