Back in the spring of 1979, my brother and I were on our annual fishing trip to Eagle Lake Ontario with my Dad. My Dad was the CEO of a kitchen cabinet and countertop manufacturing company with dealers across the US. He traveled nearly every week so he was gone much of the time. This annual fishing trip was the one time each year when we could spend a whole week together without any distractions.
It was around noon, the wind had picked up and it had started to spit snow. We decided to pull into a little cove out of the wind, start a fire to warm up and have a sandwich. The three of us were sitting around the fire and my brother said, ‘Dad, can you tell us about the war?’ Up until that day, Dad had never spoken of it. My father was born in 1922 and he and his brothers all enlisted in the service the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was 19 years old and was immediately shipped to North Africa after boot camp to fight Rommel and the Germans under General George S. Patton.
He was very lucky to have made it home. And like many veterans of that gruesome war, he had never really talked about it to my brother and I; I imagine the memories were just too painful.
But on that day sitting around the campfire many miles from civilization, my dad said, ‘well, I guess you boys are old enough now so I will share some of my experiences.’ For the next 45 minutes or so, my Dad talked about many horrific experiences, but one in particular stood out. He told us about Eddie from Des Moines, Iowa whom he had met in boot camp and with whom he sailed to North Africa. He talked about what it was like to fight in the desert, land on the shores of Sicily, engage in hand to hand combat in Northern Italy during the winter, about how the German Messerschmitts strafed their Thanksgiving dinner and killed nearly a third of their troops.
Through it all, he and Eddie had fought side by side and somehow, had survived. During the late winter, they were pushing through Italy in some very cold and wet weather and my Dad had developed ‘trench foot’ – a very painful infection caused by having wet socks and boots for an extended period. They were advancing on a German stronghold when machine gun fire ripped through the trees. My Dad was hit on the side of his helmet which saved his life (but made him nearly deaf in his left ear). Eddie was not as fortunate. He was shot in the torso and in bad shape and they were at least a mile from medical attention. My Dad put Eddie over his shoulder and carried him back to the medical tent where they shared their last words. Eddie told my Dad that he had to make it back home, had to raise a family, had to live a life worthy of both of them. Had to make all of their sacrifices and suffering mean something. Then Eddie died. My Dad was taken to a hospital in England where he recovered for a few months and was sailing home in the North Atlantic the day the Allies invaded Normandy Beach. True story.
When Dad was finishing that story he was so overcome with emotion that burst into uncontrollable tears. It was as if 50 years of pent up sorrow came pouring out. And until that day, my brother and I had never seen him cry. He stood up and grabbed us both in his arms, he told us how much he loved us and we all cried together. It was an incredibly profound moment that I will never forget. And from that moment on, until the day he died at 97 years old, my brother and I had a connection and relationship with my Dad that we still cherish to this day. I have reflected back on that moment many times over the years and there’s one thing I know for sure – it would never have happened had we not been together, just the three of us, talking around that campfire miles from anyone. The connections we make when we spend quality time with friends and family outdoors are like no other. It is time together free of distractions, pretensions and the pressure of the day to day demands we place on ourselves. It is one time that we can live in the moment and be totally present with each other. A time when we can fully appreciate the rare beauty of unspoiled places; a time to be grateful for all that we have been blessed with.
To me, these are the true ‘epic moments’ in life that must be earned, experienced, and recognized to be fully appreciated. And I have been fortunate to have experienced many such moments in my lifetime, all of which have been outdoors. My sincere hope is that if you are reading this, you too have experienced your own epic moments. And if you have, you know exactly what I mean.
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