Long before my father was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2005, he instilled in me a powerful sense of reverence for the United States military. My dad volunteered as a teenager for the U.S. Army’s Citizens Military Training Camp and served as a member of the 308th horse cavalry unit at Fort Myer, Virginia. When WWII broke out, there was no call for horse cavalry. So after attending infantry camp in Fort Meade, Maryland, he applied for and was accepted to the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School at the Army War College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He then was sent to Karachi Air Base in India with the Judge Advocate General Corps until the war was over. He served in the Army Reserves for the maximum term permitted and retired after 30 years with the rank of Colonel.
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia we had heavy mugs in our kitchen cabinet from the Army War College. We bundled up in warm clothing to root for the cadets from West Point at their annual Army-Navy football game. We were raised to sit up straight and behave when we dined with my parents in officer’s clubs. We shopped tax-free at the base exchange and as a special treat when we had time on the weekends we sometimes toured the immense grey warships docked at the Navy Yard. After watching the storied Blue Angels fly overhead in tight formation at an air show one summer, our entire family flew for the cost of our brown bag lunches from Dover, Delaware to Rota, Spain on military transport.
Today Mariah and I spent six hours at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Located not far from the home of the Wright Brothers, it is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world. It is a mammoth facility that dwarfs the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. A succession of the largest hangers I have ever seen house close to four hundred aerospace vehicles, missiles, weapons and thousands of pieces of military memorabilia. Artifacts spanning from the earliest years of flight, both World Wars, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Cold War to the modern-day space program crowd the museum. Straightforward exhibits on the Tuskegee Airman and the Women Airforce Service Pilots were particularly interesting to me when juxtaposed with the diverse representation in the military of the last few decades.
Planes of every vintage, towering missiles, the Memphis Belle, the atomic-bomb dropping Bockscar, John Glenn’s Earth-orbiting craft, the Apollo 15 command module and Air Force One dazzled the crowds. But for me, the poignant handwritten letters and personal belongings were the most compelling. These items returned my focus to the lives of individual soldiers like my father. Mariah and I stayed until the museum closed at 5 PM. It was the perfect way to spend father’s day.