Dad’s food for thought

I’ve been jonsing to talk to my dad again. For those of you who don’t know, he lives in Florida — and has for almost 40 years now. Dad and I don’t talk often … not because of any drama or anything … but simply because we’re just different people. For example, he’s a carpenter, I’m in journalism. He’s a hunter/fisherman, I’m a hiker and mountain biker. Computers are scary for him, I build them. You get the idea.

But after my recent trip to the LST 325 (and there was about 18,000 people who visited the ship while it was here, and that’s awesome), I wanted to talk to him to see if he served on one of them while he was in the Marines.

Turns out he had. I said, “Yeah, I was on an LST that came to Pittsburgh…” His response? “Been there and done that!”

Now, a few years ago, Dad tracked down his best buddy from the Marines days, and he’s been a lot more talkative about his time in the Corps. Dad was a truck driver in the Marines, so naturally he had been on the LSTs. He apparently had been on all kinds of different ships … from the LSTs to the big troop ships to the boats that you had to climb down the rope ladders over the side and into the landing craft. “And then you’d bounce around like a damn bobber for 20 minutes while everyone piled in.”

Dad had lots of insight that I hadn’t thought of. For example, when he talked about the bunks, he talked about how there were no ladders on the side of the bunks, so the guys on top just climbed up them on the sides. So, if you were asleep in your bunk, someone could step on your hand, or leg, or whatever as they climbed. He also talked about what could happen if the guy on the top bunk got sea sick … yeah, that’s right … if he puked, it was likely gonna splash on every guy on the way down.

He also talked about how hot it would get in those ships. Now, at this point, he was talking about his time spent on the big troop carriers, but I imagine it would have been the same on the LSTs. He said, “It was hot as hell, and you could only imagine the smell of a couple hundred guys stuck in there. We were like livestock.” He said after PT (physical training), most guys would stay on the deck because the “hole” (as the called it) was really pretty awful.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

He then asked if I got to see the bathrooms. I said no, because there was still crew on board, and they likely had that off limits so that if the crew had to use the head, they could do so without worrying about visitors popping in. So, dad went on to describe the shitters on board the bigger ships.

Apparently, they were one big trough that was at an angle. Water came in from the top part and, with the aid of gravity, pushed all the waste to the low part. No big deal right?

Well, it was if you were the guy on the low end of the trough. Apparently, the toilet paper or water could hit your but on it’s way out. He laughed as he told me that, but again, he said, “Hey man, we were nothing more than animals on those boats. They weren’t made for comfort.”

He talked about the trucks he drove, how the exhaust came out the top, how each one was made “waterproof” so they could drive through water. He could still recite his serial number, and the number of his gun that he was assigned in boot camp. He talked about the DIs. And I was just amazed at how much he remembered, and how simply he got the images across.

Eventually our conversation went to a different topic … his girlfriend’s brother was visiting from Cuba. Apparently it was his first time in the U.S., and apart from some time spent in Russia (he was an engineer), he had never been off the island.

Now, some of you will remember my Independence Day post, in which I talked about my mom’s trip to China back in the 80s, and how an old man asked her if we really fed the birds in America. Well, what Dad talked about next was eerily similar.

See, Dad doesn’t speak Spanish, and his girlfriend doesn’t really speak English. Somehow they manage to communicate (and have for years), but when you’re not a part of their little language, you’re perpetually on the outside.

Well, Dad had no idea of what her brother liked to eat, and he hated trying to figure it out through his girlfriend. So, he figured they’d go to a Golden Corral (as he said, “A lot of them are shit, but this one is really good for some reason.”). And, they got him a buffett, so he could pick what he liked.

They ate, and after they had their first plate, she turned to her brother and said, “Are you ready to go?” He said “Yes,” and got ready to leave the restaurant. She said, “No no no, are you ready to get more food?”

He was absolutely shocked. “More?”

She told him he could have as much as he wanted. And then his eyes welled up with tears, because he could only think of his family, and how he wished they were there to share in something so wonderful, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about being hungry.

Don't look for this in Cuba.

To put things in perspective, Dad also said they took him to a grocery store to get food for a little Labor Day cookout. He couldn’t believe that so much beef was available. According to the brother, beef is highly valued in Cuba. If you’re caught eating it or having in your possession, you’ll be arrested. The only way you really get it is if you’re on your deathbed, and they’ll give you a little bit before you die. So the fact that my dad could buy beef — in steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs — he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

They also took him to a casino. They had him open a club account, and the casino gave him $50. He played, but spent very little. After the third day, he walked out of the casino with $30. He apparently said that that was the most money he ever had carried in his pocket. His government pension, for being an engineer, was $10 a month.

It was just an amazing conversation. I hung up, and felt completely blown away. I still can’t fathom being jammed in on one of those troop ships, or finding the Golden Corral to be a little piece of heaven, or even marveling over the amount of food we have available to us. But maybe I should try. Maybe I should be a little more appreciative of what I have and the people who surround me.

And yeah, I think I need to call Dad more often.


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