November 11th, 2019


My father, the veteran

This has been bouncing around my head for a while now, and I think it's time to write it down. It's Veteran's Day, and this year marked the 100th anniversary of my father's birth.

This is a story that takes place in wartime, and involves military service. But it might not be what you expect. Let's begin.

April of 1941 was a big month in the life of Allen Leonard Bernstein. He celebrated his 22nd birthday, received his Masters degree in education from Columbia University . . . and enlisted in the United States Army.

I never got around to asking him why he did that last one. (He died when I was 24, after years of illness.) It may have been, in part, because we were still in the Depression, and jobs were hard to find. It may have been, in part, because he wanted to get out of his parents' house. (I never met his parents, as they both died before I was born, but I'm told that my paternal grandmother could be "difficult".)

But I'd like to believe that he also did it, in part, because as a young, educated Jew, he had some understanding of what was going on in Europe, recognized that the U.S. was likely to get involved, and wanted to be part of the fight against the Nazis.

For most of 1941, he was stationed in the U.S., and was able to go home to New York City on leave. It was during one of those visits that he attended a dance sponsored by a local temple. At the dance, the rabbi of the temple introduced him to one of his congregants, an 18-year-old woman named Gladys Zwick. He walked her home, and they started corresponding. (My mother tells me that she knew, by the end of the evening, that he was "the one".)

By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, he was a Corporal. Shortly after that attack, he was transferred to Hawaii, as part of the Pacific war effort. He was there until 1943.

If you're familiar with WWII history, you may know that by 1943, the U.S. Army had grown so rapidly that there was a shortage of officers. To address this, the Army developed a more compressed version of Officer Candidate School, and started looking for bright young men to train. That's how Sergeant Bernstein, who had already been in the Army for two years, became a Ninety Day Wonder.

It was also in 1943 that he wrote to Gladys that he didn't want to wait until after the war, as they'd been planning, but wanted to get married right away. And so, the newly-minted Lieutenant went home in June of 1943, and he and Gladys were wed. My mother told me that their wedding day was only the tenth time they'd seen each other in person.

The young couple spent the next couple of months in married officers' housing at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Then Allen was sent to Europe, and Gladys moved back to her parents' apartment in New York for the duration.

He was in Europe for the rest of the war, and was at the Battle of the Bulge. In November of 1945, he was honorably discharged with the rank of Captain in the field artillery.

Now here's the most remarkable thing. What you've just read is pretty much everything I know about my father's time in the Army. He almost never talked about it. The closest thing to a war story I ever heard him tell was when he laughed about being given a Purple Heart for getting a charley horse in a jeep accident.

Understand that he wasn't traumatized, he didn't have PTSD, and he didn't bear any ill will towards the military. (I once found and read a carbon copy of a letter he wrote in 1960 to Senator and candidate John F. Kennedy. In it, he praised the idea of the Peace Corps, and suggested that, to make them instantly recognizable around the world, they should wear uniforms.) It's just that his war experiences didn't define him.

My parents moved to Detroit in 1946, and lived in Michigan for the rest of their lives. (He died in 1980, at 61. She passed earlier this year, at 96.) Here they raised three kids, and he became what he was meant to be - an educator. Over the course of his career, he was a counselor, teacher, curriculum developer, and textbook author, as well as the recipient of a Doctorate in Education. And now, there's a stone in the Beth El Memorial Park that bears his name, two dates, and the words chosen by his widow: "His life enriched others".

That's the man I remember. He chose to serve, and served honorably and well. And then he lived the rest of his life, serving the young, and did that honorably and well.

And so, on this Veteran's Day, in honor of *all* his service, I say, "Thank you, Dad."

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