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Boers: A Father's Words Never Leave You

In so many ways, a father can instill so much in his children.

June 14, 2019 - 3:50 pm

(670 The Score) Most of us have seen parts of D-Day celebrations for years and years now. That’s why it’s so strange that the recent 75th commemoration in Normandy hit me so hard.

Maybe it was the sheer weight of the years. Maybe it was the fact we now measure the number of World War II D-Day veterans still alive in the hundreds, not the thousands. Maybe it’s because the world we find ourselves in these days seems more unsettled, every bit as troubled as its been since the horrors of 9/11. Maybe it’s because the unrest on our turf is palpable, where mass shootings have become the norm and the fight for human rights and equality is as fierce and necessary as its ever been. I could go on and on, but that isn’t where I’m headed.

This is far more personal, no doubt more selfish.

Thankfully, it wasn’t something I realized as a kid any time after 1950, when I was born at Ingalls Hospital in Harvey. And it probably didn’t do a thing to alter my life in any way, shape or form, as least not that I can put my finger on. Put simply, I just wanted my Dad back.

Or as least the guy he was before he joined the Army along with millions of other red-blooded American heroes who answered the call to fight the most savage, bloodiest war in history of the world. So what was that John Boers like? Was he the same quiet, always respectful man I loved so much? Or was he different in 1941? Was there an edge to him? Did he overwhelmingly feel the need to fight against the tyranny of Nazi Germany or was he just the guy that got in line at a recruiting station like millions of others? I always had the feeling that he would've done anything possible to protect our nation. 

There have always been a about a gazillion questions that I had about The Greatest Generation. I’ve learned a lot from reading, but I spent the first 23 years of my life with the best asset you could possibly have and never, ever even asked him a question. Not one stinking question.

I look back at it now and want to kick myself, want so desperately to just sit down with him for 15 minutes and talk. I know he wouldn’t have answered a single question about the war itself. Whatever happened on the battlefield, it stayed in Italy where he served most of his time. What he saw, what he felt will forever remain a mystery that I can only wish I knew more about.

What makes it all even worse is that I’ve spent the vast majority of my life asking questions of athletes from around the world, not to mention all the years on this radio station. I justify all of it by simply stating the obvious — I just wasn’t smart enough to think of that back then.

The tangible things, I know. He had a ton of people at his funereal in Steger when he died early in 1974 of a massive heart attack that he’d suffered at work. But I was too shell-shocked to ask them anything of a personal nature. I let them do the talking, and they were effusive in their praise of what a great guy he was, that he was always there when somebody needed help.

But I’d known the people from Dixie Dairy liked and respected him.  The theme repeated over and over is that he kept his head down and got the job done. He got to his mechanic’s job at 7 in the morning and didn’t get back home until at least 7 and sometimes 8 o’clock at night. When he did get home, he’d grab a quick bite to eat and then go sit in his big chair with the ashtray next to it. Smoking was something he picked up during the war and he never stopped. At the end of the night, there’d be a giant pile of Pall Malls. It was a habit he never tried to break.

The other thing he never did, at least to my knowledge, was go to a doctor. No checkups, no six-month appointments. Nothing. And he never wanted to talk about it. And I mean never. I used to hear my mom mention it. He’d say he was fine. End of conversation.

Then the Vietnam War came along. I was 14 when U.S. combat troops waded ashore just north of Da Nang on March 3, 1965. I had no idea the war would wage on for years, that it would become one of the flashpoints of the turbulent ‘60s, a decade that spawned the peace-loving Flower Children as well as enough angry anti-war protesters to shake this country to its core.

I never gave it a second thought at first, but as time rolled on, so did the seemingly endless war. The end was supposed to be around the corner any number of times, but it never happened. The promises were empty, and the anger in the souls of many Baby Boomers was on display for all to see on a daily basis.

Truthfully, mine did not. I hated what was happening, but getting through Bloom High School was enough of a chore. Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t want to get into any political discussion with my dad. Nor, as I recall, did any of my friends whose dads were also veterans.

I wasn’t prepared to rock the boat, particularly when my parents already believed I was underachieving, especially my mom.

Little did I know that the Vietnam War would drag on and on and on, despite continued promises that the evacuation of all troops was coming soon. Sure it was.

By the time I’d gone from an ultra-goofy 14-year-old to an even goofier 17-year-old and high school grad, the same empty Vietnam promises were still being made, and I’d put it all on the backburner.

Even as the protests picked up more steam, my Dad and I managed to share a moment when one of our neighbor’s sons was killed in action. I’ve written before about how emotional my Dad got at the news, even if he barely knew the kid. That will stay with me forever.

Just as is the case today, when times are seemingly making everyone crazy, Americans have a way of putting their heads down and doing what needs to be done despite the turmoil, the empty promises and things that just make you stop what you’re doing and say What the ####! is going on? We press forward.

I muddled through my two years of junior college without incident, but the minute I heard about the draft lottery coming up on Dec. 1, 1969 during my second year at Prairie State, I got a feeling of dread. Not the most patriotic reaction, granted, but by that time I was so weary of the entire Vietnam quagmire that I had run out of words. The event, telecast live, scared the living crap out of me. The first number drawn was September ... 14. There seemed to be a hesitation there, as I was born Sept. 13. That turned out to be number 175.

I could put that on the pay-no-mind list for a time, but I was aware that anybody up to 125 was likely to be drafted. It never left my mind.

Even after I got married, had my first child and moved my new family to DeKalb for my senior year at Northern Illinois, that gnawing feeling wouldn’t go away. For the first time in my life, I stopped being a fool and buckled down to make sure that if anybody was interested in hiring me, I was going to ace all my journalism classes.

During that process, I learned that numbers going up to 150 had been called to go downtown and have their physicals. If there was a next group to go, I would be in it.

Outwardly, I tried to be as nonchalant as one could possibly be, even though the Vietnam War simply refused to go away. I had in my head that they were going to need more men, and I was going to be one of them.

To this day, I’m not sure if I was more frightened by the idea of going to war or having to tell my Dad that I had the same feelings about Vietnam as Muhammad Ali.

When we went back to Steger that weekend, as we always did, I told my Dad that we needed to talk at some point. I’ve never told this story before, fearing the repercussions, but now’s the time.

When we finally carved out a little space for a visit, I was sick to my stomach. How do you tell a guy who sacrificed everything to go fight that his son didn’t have it in his heart to answer the call? It should be noted that call never came.

I summoned up every bit of courage I could and didn’t mince words about what I believed.

My dad didn’t blink. He leaned back a bit in his big comfy chair, seeming to need more time to process what I had just said.

He didn’t say anything for what seemed like forever. I was preparing for the worst, even if I wasn't certain what that would even be.

Finally, he leaned forward, grabbed me by the shoulders and said: "You do what you have to do. If you don’t want to fight, don’t fight. That’s OK with me."

It took a second for it to wash over me. It was almost like I needed hear it again. But I knew what he said.

Only later would I realize how powerful even the simplest words from a father can be.

Those words will never die.

Terry Boers was a longtime sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and a host on 670 The Score from the station’s inception in 1992 until he retired in January 2017.