Why is this my favorite photo of my father?
Updated: Jan 16
This photo, which I recently discovered in an old box with over a thousand love letters my father wrote to my mother during World War II, is now my favorite. But it’s not just because my dad looks so dapper in his uniform…or because of the big smile he has plastered across that handsome face of his…or even because of that silly curl dangling from his forehead. I have come to love this photo because of the pins on his lapels and the patch on the sleeve of his left arm. It’s because of his wings!
I always knew that while Dad was in the Army Air Corps, he was in the Aviation Cadet Program, training to become an officer and a pilot. What I didn’t know – what his letters recently revealed to me – is that he fully didn’t expect to get into the Cadet Program. In those letters to Mom, my twenty-one year old dad called it a “pipe dream,” expressing over and over again that he wasn't optimistic about his chances of being accepted. He was, you see, the fourth of eight children born to Italian immigrant parents…the first one born in America…the first male…and, perhaps, the only one of his siblings to graduate from high school. For those reasons alone, being accepted into cadet school was quite an accomplishment. What I further learned, though, was that at the time of his acceptance, over two hundred candidates applied, and Dad was one of only twenty who were accepted.
The morning he was informed, it was a hot day at the base at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. Nervous and sweating profusely, Dad approached a table when his name was called. A lieutenant said, “You look like you just came straight out of Hell, soldier.” My father replied, “I’m sorry, sir, it’s just so hot, and I’m feeling a bit nervous.” The lieutenant picked up his application and said, “Well, congratulations, corporal. You’re a cadet!”
When he wrote to my mother, his excitement was palpable and the words jumped off the page. “Imagine me, an officer!” he wrote.
I cried when I read those words. In fact, I wept. My dad had never told us about that day. I never knew that it was so competitive or what a big accomplishment it was. For me, it was a post-mortem celebration, though. You see, throughout his life, outside of birthdays, we had never celebrated my father. After all, he earned his living as a plumbing contractor, and while he provided us with a very good life, there were no milestones, no awards, no dinners in his honor.
Sadly, my father never finished the Aviation Cadet Program. When I asked him why many years ago, he said that it was because the War ended and the Army no longer needed pilots and officers. I have a suspicion that's not the whole truth (reading the remaining letters will confirm or not confirm his explanation), but even if it was the case, I know it must have been tremendously heartbreaking for Dad. After all, it was a dream unfulfilled.
When I was a boy of about ten, Dad got me interested in building model airplanes. He started talking of me going to the Air Force Academy and becoming a pilot. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but he wanted me to fulfill a dream he never was able to realize. By the time I reached high school, I had lost interest in airplanes and flying. It makes me sad to reflect on this memory. It was my destiny to fulfill my own dreams, not Dad’s, but now as I look back on his life, I wish I could have done it for him! He flew high in other ways, though -- as a family man and provider, as a father and grandfather, and as a man of strength and character -- and we who loved my father miss him!