The human brain is a wonderful computer, but its hard drive doesn’t come pre-loaded with all the data needed to navigate one’s way through life. That has to be acquired, via downloads from the accumulated wisdom of the ages and the aged. That’s why there are schools. That’s why there are libraries. And that’s why there are dads.
I learned much from my father, Walter "Bud" Vanes, but less than he had to teach, and the deficit is on me. The passion of the old to speak and teach usually exceeds the willingness of the young to listen and learn. Perhaps the oft-noted reticence of older veterans regarding their war experiences is simply their resignation to the fact that too few really want to hear. It’s often late in life before we appreciate how much our fathers have learned and how sound their advice can be. As the journalist Tim Russert noted: “The older I get, the smarter my father seems to get.”
But we don’t inherit a father’s smarts the way we might his golf clubs or his tools. We need to seek it out before it is lost to what Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time.”
In his last years, my father penned a short memoir about his time as a Marine during World War II. Now grown old, he wrote about those who never had that chance. He mentioned the “soft spot” in his heart for the Marines who returned from Guadalcanal and especially for those who did not, a soft spot made permanent during a stint of reclamation duty sorting through the seabags of the dead with their personal effects and last letters from home.
Those letters, he wrote, were “heart-rending.” What did he read -- a mother’s failed prayer for her son’s safe return? “Dear John” letters from a wife or girlfriend? Plans for a homecoming that was not to be? I don’t know because I didn’t ask. And now it’s too late.
It was a strange, regrettable failure on my part because I, too, have held in hand the last written words sent to or authored by victims of sudden, violent death, and I understand how haunting those words can be.
So glance back now and again at that aging figure fading into the background. Take a little time to ask and listen. His path to the present is marked by tales that will inspire and inform.
And tap into the databank of hard-earned wisdom stored inside that always-willing teacher in what is still the world’s best, if smallest school – the family.