By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach …. Reach Lisa at LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com
My father, Ed Yorkgitis, died in May 2014, but I still want to honor him tomorrow, Nov. 11, 2014 — Veterans Day.
I plan to wear at least one pin from his collection of WWII medals and pins. I aim to read a few entries from the journal Ed kept during his service as an Army Air Corps navigator. I plan to text my oldest child in college to remind her of the significance of the day and remind my younger children of his contributions and those of their paternal grandfather, Bob Nahach, also a WWII veteran. Finally, I will continue reminiscing about how my family and I spent the day with my father during the time he lived here in Jefferson City, Mo.
For several years, we accompanied him to a Veterans Day program at Lawson Elementary School, which my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, attended at the time. Ed proudly stood when the emcee announced his name and branch of service. Sure, he had to lean on his walker, and sure, he sometimes needed a boost to stand up. But, by golly, he was going to stand if at all possible. More than once, tears ran down his cheeks.
Two years ago, I proposed that Ed and I give a presentation about his service and discuss his war journals. He didn’t hesitate, despite the Parkinson’s Disease that sometimes caused him to speak slowly and softly. He wanted to share his experience with young people. After all, few elementary-age children have great grandparents who served in WWII, let alone grandparents able to speak about their service.
We followed several steps to prepare for the big event. First, we retrieved Ed’s woolen service shirts from a hard-sided grey American Tourister. Thanks to the box of mothballs we had dumped in, the sixty-year-old shirts looked amazingly fresh. (My father loved mothballs.) A trip to the dry cleaner ensured that the shirts didn’t smell like naphthalene.
Next, we gathered photos, including one of guerrilla fighters my father and his fellow crewmates dropped behind enemy lines. We also found on the Internet photos of the kind of plane from which my father’s crews dropped not only guerrilla fighters but also supplies and propaganda geared toward turning Italians and citizens of other enemy countries against their governments. After the war, he and his crew returned servicemen to the United States.
My father even wanted props. “Do you have any red tissue paper?” he asked me. “I think so,” I said. “What do you need it for?” Apparently, during night flights, Dad crouched in the dark, a few steps from the pilot, and charted a course, using a flashlight dimmed with red tissue paper to read his maps. The red tissue paper lessened the likelihood of detection by enemies. Dad’s light was the only one on the plane.
On Veterans Day, Dad looked dashing, thanks, in part, to my sister, Elaine, who visited us from Minnesota, and helped him dress. We had chosen the dark greenish-brown service shirt that fit him best and paired it with brown pants and a belt and one of the service hats he wore as a young first lieutenant. His eyes sparkled; he stood as erect as I had seen him in a few years; and he walked briskly with the help of his walker.
I opened the program by showing the children the three 2′ x 3′ flip notebooks in which my father chronicled his service. I compared my father’s journal writing to the regular in-class writing young students do about their lives. After sharing the pictures and showing the sample flashlight, I read a few excerpts from the journals. I chose passages that depicted his ordinary life, much like what the children might experience. Dad received a package from his family. He went to church. He ate dinner with the Italian family in whose home he lived for a time. I kept the comments low key. I didn’t want to scare anyone.
When Dad stood to speak, he was overcome with emotion. “I want to say first I never saw so many pretty faces in one place,” he said.
He recollected needing to know one important variable for each flight. “Before the mission, we would have a meeting and the director would discuss the weather,” he said. “We would have to know what the weather was going to be, particularly which way the wind was going to be blowing.”
Dad paused several times to gather his thoughts; one period of silence seemed to last at least a few minutes. Finally, he fell back upon one of his favorite stories.
“On our return (from a mission), all the crew members were given a drink of whiskey,” he said. “I had never drunk whiskey before, so I didn’t take any for a couple of flights. Then I decided, ‘I’ll try that.’ And it showed how tense I’d gotten during the flight because everything just evaporated.”
The veterans and most of the other adults comprehended his situation. They appreciated his story, but some of the educators were taken aback. After all, I already had spoken about the wine Dad’s Italian host family served at dinner.
Reflecting on that Veterans Day two years ago, I wish that Dad and I had written scripts for the presentation. I should have realized that facing an audience might cause Dad’s Parkinson’s Disease to kick in.
I also did not anticipate the impact Dad’s presentation would have on the audience. Several people — including a few children — thanked him afterward for his service. School staff member Carol Bax introduced herself and shared the story of how her father, a U.S. serviceman, met her mother during WWII in Italy. (See her picture, above.) My daughter gained a greater appreciation for Dad’s contributions to the U.S. efforts overseas.
“Well, I understood where he was stationed at and what he did,” Elizabeth told me recently. “I just thought he flew around. It was just kinda cool hearing about the different adventures he had.”