Sed Contra: John Wayne Grows Old

Deal W. Hudson
October 1, 1999

He was the strongest man I ever knew. He had will-power of iron. The doctor said to stop smoking. After that day he never smoked another cigarette. Years later a different doctor banned alcohol—not another drink passed his lips for more than thirty years. Of all the money he inherited from his mother and aunt, not a penny of these assets was spent on himself; all of it was saved and reinvested for his three children. Now after heart failure and a stroke he lies in a hospital bed. I have just returned from his bedside, where I cut up his dinner and placed it in his mouth, piece by piece.

I guess you could call my dad part of the Saving Private Ryan generation. Fresh out of Texas in his early twenties, a captain in the Army Air Corps, he flew his missions over Germany and Yugoslavia and, I was told by my mother, never lost a man. Dad never talked about the war, but over the years it became clear his soul had suffered much from the experience. After seeing the Spielberg movie, and listening to the reaction of many World War II veterans, it was also clearly an emotional catharsis of sorts had been long overdue.

I took the occasion of that film for my daughter and I to interview him about his war experience. Dad seemed finally ready to talk about those years where every morning these young men wondered if they would survive another day. No wonder, he said, they all learned how to drink, pretty hard. His best story was about his plane being shot down in Yugoslavia and the local women who hid the flyers in hay wagons until they were rescued.

I already knew that story because a few months earlier providence had arranged for Dad to play golf with my friend and Crisis supporter, the late Jim Matthews, who turned out to be the captain of the plane that swooped down in that field to take them back to the base in Italy.

Age did not diminish Dad’s will-power. In the summer of 1998, I went to Rockport, Maine, to play with him in a two-day golf tournament at the local country club. This had become a yearly ritual for us—we had never played that well but we knew we were running out of time, and we were determined to make a good showing.

Dad was 78 that summer but still a solid mid-80s player. After the first day’s scramble format, we were in the lead. We always liked scrambles, where you pick the best shot and play from there since I usually drive well and Dad has always been an extraordinary putter. The second day was the best-ball of our twosome. I played well for about 13 holes but then started to fall apart. My trusty driver was letting me down. We knew we were probably in the lead for the championship flight but could not afford a single bad hole.

To this day I have no idea where he summoned the strength. While I looked for my lost game, Dad parred the last five holes. We had been teaming together since I was eleven, and now father and son had finally won a golf tournament.

Two weeks later, at a hospital in Houston, my father would be told he suffered from congestive heart failure, and his heart was pumping only 20 percent of the blood his body needed. How did he do it? As Tom Brokaw explains in his book The Greatest Generation, these men had guts, acquired in the midst of unprecedented self-sacrifice—in the fight against tyranny they learned that God, country, and family outweighed personal satisfaction.

Many readers, I am sure, have been down this road of watching a father, or a mother, become child-like through the ravages of age and disease. Michael Novak told me that losing a father is like standing in a clearing where all of a sudden the last row of trees are blown away and you feel a storm smacking you in the face. I have gone back to that image many times to understand the strange reversal of roles. My father is still with us but already I feel the force of the wind rising against me. To be the son of the father I must pray and persevere.

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