I JUST LEARNED OF THE PASSING of Dr. Jack Payton, he was one of my dad’s colleagues and very best friends. He was 101 years old. It brings to light an essay and poem I wrote a couple years ago that brought back memories from the late 1960s. I do like to think that I am basically a humorist, but there are issues that aren’t so funny. This little essay is more in this vein and is offered as a tribute to Dr. Payton. He was such a fine man.
IN MY EARLIER MEMOIRS, I wrote about the experiences of war and revealed that my mother once mentioned a high school sweetheart that died in France early in World War II. She shared this with me when I was a young teen while we were congregating in our basement storage room. Mom was going through some personal items during a quiet moment of reflection. I saw her display a tear or two, an emotion that was rarely in her repertoire. I quickly disavowed this possible sighting, concluding that there could not be any other man in my mom’s heart other than my dad. Ever!
Frankly, at thirteen, I was mostly concerned that she did not discover my next-door neighbor’s pilfered Playboy magazines that I had safely secured in a drawer in Grandma’s stored antique dresser for my own private viewing. The centerfolds always caused a bit of anxiety in me, their concealment that is; I have no idea why, especially as I reflect here. Mom would have loved that I had nude pin-ups as a young teenager. We didn’t discuss such things as sex, or death, or war in the 1950s and early 1960s.
I find this position of not discussing sensitive subjects more than curious. I remember Dr. Jack Payton, an old family friend, also a pediatrician and World War II veteran, sitting with my dad and me in our family room during cocktails in the fall of 1969. I must have raised my concerns about Vietnam; likely that got him in a reflective mood.
My simple question opened his flood gates that early evening. He too had been represented to me as never discussing the war. He talked freely about his sixteen months in captivity in both France and Germany. Dr. Payton was a prisoner of war. Alcohol and trusted friends helped him feel comfortable and it brought forth his buried memories that he would likely not have revealed in his own house full of females.
Dr. Payton portrayed the German regular army as being decent chaps, especially in their treatment of him as a prisoner. It was only the S.S. that both the American prisoners and the German army had to be careful and compliant around. The S.S. showed up very infrequently, so this was of relief as expressed by Dr. Payton. Dad and I sat in attentive silence taking it all in.
Jack told us that he had escaped a couple of times only to be recaptured after each attempt. He also disclosed that General Patton’s son-in-law was held in one of their POW camps and he recalled a rescue mission where our Allied special troops sprung the son-in-law out. Now, that seems a bit sad, but politics exist in every war. He revealed that many soldiers on both sides were killed during the rescue. Dr. Payton was still frosted that early evening about just that fact. After these fifteen minutes of stories, Jack put his drink down and left for home.
Dad expressed in amazement, “Never has Jack discussed the war with me in the almost twenty-five years since he returned. Christ, we all thought Jack was dead for over a year. This was while Penny, Mom and I, and a few of you kids, were all back in Ann Arbor.”
No one seriously discussed the war in polite company. This is how pain and losses were dealt with in the aftermath of World War II - there being too much to live for to bring back such awful memories, or so it’s said.
The real issue at this point in my life was my total loathing for the bloody fields of Vietnam. I was facing the decision of either duty to our country, or to protest the war by moving to Canada. It was beginning to be an option that was under serious consideration by me in 1969. My mom met my pronouncements by suggesting I could finish school in Windsor, Ontario. Even with such heady decisions in my space, she commented to her delight that we could play golf together during her visits. She remarked that Ontario had some of her favorite golf courses. My declaration, in all honesty, was a trial balloon to see if I could get a rise from her to help in my decision-making. She likely had experienced enough war in her lifetime, but she firmly took the position that it was my decision and my decision alone. Damn, that was quite a challenge she presented to me when I was nineteen years old.
On December 1, 1969, the Selective Service lottery made the decision for me. My random number, picked during a national radio broadcast, was high enough to protect me from being drafted. I was most thankful for my dumb luck, but it worked its magic, allowing me to stay in Michigan and finish school for the duration of the tragic conflict. There is lingering sadness today, met with deep humility by me, certainly not guilt, remembering the 60,000 soldiers that died in Vietnam, half had been drafted, but all were carrying out some decree by a temporary leader.
War repeats itself, again and again.
Absolute folly brought by transitory leaders.
Our young lured by boisterous battle cries.
Such pain and grief as young people die.
For what reason, I ask again and again,
Do we send our young to these early graves?
Robert Bruce Adams