April 13 2010: This weekend marked the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau death camp.
I'm at the age where 65 years doesn't seem all that long ago any more. Now, BEFORE YOU SNICKER AT ME, young whippersnapper, keep in mind that you will come to this point in your lifetime someday too -- if you're lucky. But in geologic time -- and I am as old as some rocks -- 65 years is barely even yesterday. I like to think we have evolved as a species in the intervening years.
So as I was thinking about the liberation of the Nazi death camps, suddenly I thought about my father.
In April 1945, my dad was a prisoner of war in Japan. He had been there for three years already. The war was just about over, and he had no way of knowing. Dad remained in the prison camp for another four months.
In that context, four months seems an eternity. From early spring to late summer my dad continued to wallow in a prison camp, hoping against hope to outlast this war that had already gone on so long. His family continued to mourn him, certain he was long dead.
It sure must have been a surprise to find a skeleton in a Marine uniform standing on their front porch one day. But that was long after Allied troops arrived at Dachau on that April day in 1945.
My father was an unlikely hero. On an island swarming with Japanese, Dad had been put in charge of an impromptu brigade solely by virtue of the fact that he played first chair saxophone. That's right -- my dad joined the Marine Corps to play in the band. And while he reveled in the manly credentials his Marine status conferred, I think in his heart of hearts he was a musician, not a soldier. And he had enough leadership to get his little ersatz posse captured as POWs. The other half of the band walked into enemy fire; they were all killed.
By such a slender thread I am here today.
Every aspect of our lives hangs on such tiny wires. Some of those imprisoned in Dachau would not have made it another few months, but were liberated in time to survive and create families. And Dad -- Dad was able to hang on, even after those who loved him best had given up all hope.
One of Dad's slogans was, "NEVER EVER GIVE UP." It's not hard to believe he practiced what he preached.
My Father the Marine: Hal T. Leber (highlighted, with clarinet), in Shanghai, 1941