Father's Day – Sunday, June 15, 2008
More than 60 years after her father was killed in World War II, Lois Brown Klein of Montecito found the flag that covered his coffin for the military funeral. Still folded in the traditional triangle, it had been stashed away in the attic of an aunt in the Midwest until Ms. Klein discovered it by chance during a trip there last year.
"I was visiting my sister in Chicago, and she casually mentioned that the flag had been given to my nephew," said Mrs. Klein. "I became enraged. I was filled with anger and unspeakable grief that something so close to my Dad had been kept from me. All those years, I had so few objects -- a few photos, a few letters. The flag could have been a healing object."
Now it's one of her most treasured possessions as she describes in her poem "Sixty Years After the War":
"Spread out on my living room rug
is the flag they placed on my Father's casket,
the slight musty triangle of it
just discovered in my Aunt Na's attic.
I unfold myself, lie down upon its length,
align its stripes against my living body,
breathe in the stars beneath my cheek,
hug rough muslin to my skin.
I know there is a special way to fold
a flag -- two solemn soldiers stand
at either end, two folds the long way, then,
starting at the stripes, small diagonals
until a single triangle remains.
A ritual of strict respect and yet
it seems to stifle life and breath.
I leave my father's flag unfolded, open
to the air and sun, assured he's
somewhere there in it, radiating calm."
The poem was written last December, too late to be included in her recently published book, "A Soldier's Daughter,' (Turning Point Books, $17). Dedicated "for my father, Major Ira Brown, 1906-1942, U.S. Army Medical Corps," the poetry collection has been a way of "coming to terms with my father's death -- the good, the bad and the ugly. It also brought be closer to my family, not only my children but my mother's family. I reached out to them, and they opened their arms," said Ms. Klein.
Titles include "A Family Minus One," "Fathers' Hands," and "My Father's Ghost."
Although she never really knew her father -- she was only a 1 1/2 years old when he died -- Ms. Klein, 60, said she has missed him all her life, mainly because his death was never discussed.
"My mother never remarried. No one could fill Dad's shoes. She soldiered on. She continued to grieve but didn't want to talk about it nor did anyone else," said Ms. Klein. "However, on special occasions, she would say to my two sisters and me, 'Oh, if your father could see you now.'
"On the other hand, when I would say to my mother, 'I miss my father,' she would say, 'How can you? You never knew him.' "
Father's Days came and went. Especially hard were the annual father-daughter banquets at Highland Park High School in Chicago, where Ms. Klein grew up.
"Mother had me go with my uncle, but it was never the same. In those days, everyone had a two-parent family," said Ms. Klein, who graduated from Tufts University in Boston. She is co-organizer of the Santa Barbara Poetry Series, a fellow of the South Coast Writers Project and teaches in the California Poets in the Schools program.
Latent feelings about her missing father first began to surface when Ms. Klein, the mother of three grown children and five grandchildren, took an adult education journal-writing class from Anne Lowenkopf.
"Everyone else would write pages, and I had 14 lines of succinct thoughts and condensed images. I didn't ramble," she said. "Anne told me, 'Your direction is poetry.' "
She self-published her first book of poetry, "Naming Water," in 1998. To her surprise and delight, 250 copies sold at Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito.
"I kept writing and crafting my technique. I audited Barry Spacks' class in poetry at UCSB. He was a poet laureate of Santa Barbara. It unlocked a passion within me and was helpful in my personal therapy. Through my poetry, I was able to express emotions I hadn't realized were there. I discovered what I am thinking and feeling."
Soon, she realized that many of her poems were about growing up without a father.
"I knew that he was a doctor who had finished his residency in obstetrics/gynecology and had just set up his private practice in Chicago when he was called to active duty because he was in the reserves. This was before Pearl Harbor was attacked," Ms. Klein said. "He was killed in April 1942, not by the enemy but while he was sleeping in a barracks at Camp Grant in Illinois. There was a fire, and the barracks went up like a tinder box, because they had been there since the Civil War."
The widow was told the fire was caused by enemy sabotage, and she died in 1991, never knowing what the real reason was.
Ms. Klein found out what happened only three years ago when she discovered the nonprofit organization American WWII Orphans Network, founded in 1991 and comprised of sons and daughters and other family members of Americans killed or missing in World War II.
"I was able to get a record of the hearing after the fire and found out the fire that killed my father was caused by another soldier who had fallen asleep while smoking, not by some German or Japanese who had short-circuited the wiring. This is what they told my mother, and she died without finding out the truth."
Mrs. Klein also discovered that another member of the organization lived in Santa Barbara -- Rik Peirson, owner of Day One, an advertising and marketing firm. As Web master for the AWON site, he contacted Ms. Klein, and the two have become good friends.
"Lois and I grew up thinking, as most people do, that you had to lose both parents to be considered an orphan," said Mr. Peirson. "But we found out through AWON that you're an orphan even if you have one parent."
The death of Mr. Peirson's father was particularly poignant since he was killed on Christmas Day in 1944 at La Roumiere in the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Peirson, an only child, was 4 months old.
"My mother suffered through Christmas every year after that. She never remarried. She called herself a one-man woman. I called her the walking wounded," said Mr. Peirson, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., where his parents were married in 1942.
His father was John Silas Sheffield Peirson, a graduate of The Mercersberg Academy, a prep school in central Pennsylvania, where he returned to teach English and head public relations after earning his bachelor's degree at Yale University.
"My mother, Elizabeth Frost, and father met at Mercersberg," said Mr. Peirson. "She was a writer for Parents Magazine in New York. During the summer, she reviewed summer camps, and in the winter, she reviewed prep schools. They connected when Dad in his PR capacity was showing my mother around the campus."
When World War II started, John Peirson tried to enlist but was rejected because of poor eyesight.
"That didn't stop him. He memorized the eye chart and got in, joining the 75th Infantry Division at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri," said Mr. Peirson. "Dad was home when I was born in August of 1944, I'm told, but shipped out from New York in October. The Battle of the Bulge began Dec. 16.
"On Christmas Eve, without winter uniforms, without briefings or proper maps, without air support, with less than a normal combat load of ammunition and with no combat experience, two companies of the 75th, including my Dad's Company L, were ordered to take a hill called La Roumiere -- no matter the cost -- from combat-experienced enemy units who were well dug in at the top. The 75th lost more than 250 officers and men, my Dad among them. He is buried with his buddies at Henri-Chapelle Military Cemetery in Belgium."
Mr. Peirson, who cherishes his copy of Life magazine from Christmas Day 1944, said he didn't know all the details about his father's death until a year ago, when, through AWON, he found a man from New England who had been in the same battle.
While he was growing up, his mother "never hesitated to tell me all she could about him, the kind of man he was, his sense of humor, his sense of fun and his sense of duty to his country. No wonder he was always my hero."
Among the poems about her Father are the following from
"A Soldier's Daughter" by Lois Brown Klein.
I imagine he scoops me up into his arms.
I feel the smoothness of his palm,
the wool of his uniform against my leg.
Maybe he is asking or telling me something
when I see the dog across the room
and wriggle to get down. He holds me tight.
Perhaps he's smoothing down my curls or
breathing the clean scent of baby shampoo.
Maybe he is saying good-by.
My white lace-up shoes rest against
his hips, my dress flowers across his hand –
when finally I twist away and down.
My skin still feels the pressure of his arm
even as he frowns and walks away,
followed by the dog.
Without a father
without the way he kneels beside his toddler
to explain the petals on a flower
Or the way he says let's go for a ride,
just us two and opens the car door
like Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird
Without the treasures he might bring:
ribbons for my hair, socks with frilly tops,
a Canadian quarter, a blue jay feather
Without his arm around my shoulder
as we unravel a math problem or I model
the dress I'm wearing to the prom
But mostly without a smile that fathers
save for their daughter
the smile that teaches me to smile.
Until today I've never said
I'm Lois, Ira Brown's daughter,
out loud or to myself, have
never claimed my dad that way.
Even the word Father
seems to stand alone
floating on some surreal sea
beckoning from a distant
lighthouse in a country
forever unknown to me, a land
that most belonged to Mother
who would not take me there,
her tears, a tribute to their love
which she held close,
while I survived outside
whatever light he shed.
My Father's Ghost
My father's ghost is everywhere.
He is the bullet I dodge,
the land mine I tiptoe around.
All the men on earth
come trooping along with him
in their uniforms of distress
with their smiles and bayonets.
They could invade at any hour.
I'm readying my armor.
A sidebar to the article contained this information about AWON:
YOU SHOULD KNOW
American WWII Orphans Network is a nonprofit organization comprised of the sons and daughters and other family members of Americans killed or missing in World War II.
Its mission is to locate and support American orphans of WWII and to honor the service and sacrifices of the fathers and of all veterans.
The deaths of more than 406,000 men left an estimated 183,000 American children without fathers. Most are now in their 60s, and many are unaware that many others share the same condition.
Here are some of the things AWON does:
• Locates American WWII orphans and shows them they are not alone.
• Helps them honor their father's service and sacrifice.
• Helps connect them to sources of information about their fathers from military and government records. Pursues recovery efforts for those Missing in Action.
• Maintains the only database known to exist on orphans of those lost in WWII.
• Maintains a Web site, www.awon.org, where members can communicate with each other and post tributes to their fathers.
For more information, call 540 310-0750, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to American WWII Orphans Network, 5745 Lee Road, Indianapolis, IN 46216.
In Memory of MAJ Ira Brown, Killed in April, 1942 at Camp Grant, Illinois
and 1LT John Peirson, KIA 25 December, 1944 in Belgium