Whenever I see those words scrawled across the banners draped like bunting across highway overpasses for returning servicemen and women these days, I have to smile.
I smile because they make me think of my father when he was a young man, 31, coming back to Rhode Island after nearly four years in the Navy.
It was January 1946, and the demobilization of the millions of American men and women who had served their country during World War II was continuing, making for countless joyous reunions and countless marches down the aisle. It was a bumper year for weddings and the dawn of the baby boomer generation.
Not long after he came back to Providence, my father bumped into my mother (a longtime friend of his family’s) while waiting for a bus in front of the Gladding’s Department Store. They fell in love and within months my dad was making plans for marriage even though he was trying to get by on the shoestring budget of a young veteran.
For years, my sister and I didn’t know much more about my dad and World War II than that love story that we made him tell over and over.
My sister and I didn’t know about the series of events that he referred to as “The Three Letters Incident.” And we didn’t know about the documents he kept clipped together and tucked away in his desk as a constant reminder of the rather “special” welcome home he received from one arm of the government.
A few years ago I was, once again, pressing him for more details about his World War II days and how he married mama shortly after his return when he said, “Didn’t I ever tell you about the letters?”
“Let me show you something.” he said, dipping into his meticulous files to pull out a typewritten letter on thin paper marked with the heading: The Secretary of the Navy.
Apparently a missive sent to all returning Navy veterans, it began grandly with, “My Dear Mr. Polichetti: I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed. … I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civilian life and remain with you always.”
The letter, dated Jan. 31, 1946, goes on to remind my dad that he served “in the greatest Navy in the world,” and that for his part he deserved to “be proud as long as you live.”
“The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude,” it states just above the signature of James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy.
I remember being impressed and saying something like, “Gee, Daddy, that’s great.”
“I thought so too at first,” my dad replied. “But wait, there’s more.”
The second document he produced was something else every returning service man received, and was impressive with its Presidential seal and looping calligraphy. It brought m y father the “heartfelt thanks of a grateful Nation” and bore the signature of President Harry S Truman.
“Why didn’t you ever frame this?” I asked.
“I wanted to, but there’s more. You’ll see,” he said, pulling another letter from his desk drawer.
This, too, was from the government, but it had been hand-delivered to my dad just days before his November 1946 wedding. At the time my father was working at Low Plumbing Supply when the government showed up in the person of one Mr. Sweeney.
Mr. Sweeney worked for the Providence office of the Internal Revenue Service, and he had not come to extend more thanks from “a grateful nation.” Instead, Sweeney was there to put my father on notice that he owed the IRS $87.43 from wages he earned before the war and to warn him that unless he came up with the money, the IRS was going to attach his pay.
My father was horrified and embarrassed. If his prospective father-in-law got wind of the debt, it would carry a stigma and make for choice gossip at the wedding reception.
He explained all this to Sweeney and pointed out that during his three years, nine months and 28 days in the Navy, the IRS had never managed to send him a delinquency notice.
As my dad tells it, Mr. Sweeney listed patiently as if he understood, but at the end just shook his head. The IRS paperwork was in place and the groom-to-be was going to have his pay attached unless he came up with the money on the spot.
“Eight-seven dollars? Are you kidding? I don’t have that kind of money,” was my father’s dismayed response. He finally persuaded Mr. Sweeney to take $10 in cash with the promise that he would pay the balance by Dec. 1.
My parents’ quiet weekday wedding went off without a hitch. No word of scandal or debt was breathed. But my dad could never quite relax enough on their honeymoon to enjoy the thundering beauty of Niagara Falls because the payment arrangement struck with Mr. Sweeney dangled like the sword of Damocles above his head.
After re turning home, he found a way to scrounge up the balance and showed up at the IRS offices in Providence on Nov. 27 to pay the remaining $77.43. Mr. Sweeney accepted the payment and issued my father a receipt with the word “PAID” stamped in large red letters.
My parents have been married nearly 62 years, and my father says he doesn’t hold a grudge against the IRS.
Still, the letters from the Navy and Truman were never framed as planned, and my father still isn’t taking any chances.
Every tax season he carefully takes the signed receipt from 1946 and moves it forward to the current year’s tax folder. The letters from Truman and Forrestal go along, too.
If anyone asks any questions, he’s got proof.
Proof of an old debt paid to the IRS.
Proof of service gladly given to a grateful nation.
(Reach Barbara Polichetti at Bpoliche(at)projo.com.)