A Reluctant Veteran1
November 20, 2015 by kittynh
I am honored to share this belated Veteran’s Day story. We forget that our veterans experience things while serving that stay with them long after they return home.This the story of a good man, and how he took what he experienced during his service and turned it to charity and awareness of those in need. I was so impressed with Karen’s story of her wonderful father, I asked her to please allow me to share her memories of his remarkable giving life. To my surprise, I found out she was adopted, which is very much in keeping with the giving nature of her WWII veteran father. This story was meaningful as I have family that believe”I’m willing to die for my country, but I’m not willing to kill for my country.” They also served in the medical corp in various jobs. (Kitty)
A Reluctant Veteran
He was born in the US in1912, the eldest son of a family of Norwegian immigrants, in Superior, Wisconsin. The eldest son was traditionally named after Martin Luther. It was also important to name him after an Uncle Andreas, but that was such an old-world name! They compromised with the spelling, and Luther Andrews Larsen he became.
The family was loving but undramatic, and he grew up with and embraced an intensely strong work ethic. He regularly cut high school days to work odd jobs, which were plentiful in the busy port city. He did this not because his family was poor, but because he thought it was so much more productive than sitting in a classroom. Because he managed a “B” average anyhow, the school was remarkably complacent about it by modern standards. He’d miss a few days, and his principal would not ask him where’d he’d been, but what job he’d had. Most of the money went into savings, because he was very frugal. Except for the care and feeding of a beloved dog, he found very few things worth spending money on.
After high school, he went to work for his local grocery store. He had a fantastic head for figures and a good one for business practices, and soon he was working the back office, keeping the books. As the store became a chain, he was promoted further, and was soon the point man for setting up the new businesses. He’d travel around to different towns in Wisconsin and Minnesota, setting up new stores, staying a few months, and moving on. He didn’t date much; he hadn’t met a woman who impressed him
That all changed in 1938, when he stopped in at a restaurant in the town where he was to open his latest store. He was captivated by his waitress, a lovely redhead named Kay. When her shift ended, he was there to offer her a late night drink, and she reluctantly accepted; due to an unfortunate childhood, she had a strong distrust of men. But this man was a gentleman. They had their drink and he saw her home very ceremoniously, and she decided if he asked again she’d go out with him. He asked again.
They dated off and on for awhile; Luther was still shuttling about the Midwest, planting grocery stores and rescuing ones that were in trouble. World War II put a wrench in everything, though. He was a patriot who wanted to serve his country, and with the draft that seemed inevitable anyhow. But he was deeply troubled at the thought of killing someone, even an enemy. So he volunteered for the Army, and studied extraordinarily hard to get into the medical corps. He would not spend the war killing people, but helping to heal them.
Meanwhile Kay joined two of her sisters in California. She was tired of the Midwest, and looked forward to the promise that California offered in the 1940s. Being an extraordinarily anxious person, she couldn’t sit in Minnesota and wait a boyfriend who might never return from the war. She settled in Oakland, California, found a nice little flat and a good waitressing job, and corresponded with Luther. In 1942, he wrote to say he was in Medford, Oregon, about to leave for the Pacific Theater. Would she take the bus up and see him off?
Kay took the Greyhound bus to Medford. Luther was waiting for her, with a surprise – a marriage proposal. Despite their religious incompatibility on paper – she was Catholic and he was Lutheran — two days later they were married in the base chapel, attended by witnesses Kay had met the night before. They drank warm champagne with their witness-friends; that was the extent of their celebration. Luther shipped out the next day, and Kay returned to Oakland for the long wait. They were reunited a bit after the war ended, as Luther was nursing a ship full of wounded soldiers home when hostilities were finally over.
While Kay waited on tables and waited on her husband to return, Luther was having an more complicated time. He was stationed at an Army hospital in the Philippines. There, the surgeons discovered that he had a real knack for making neat sutures. He became the go-to guy for nasty wounds, especially those with cosmetic or functional issues. He stitched a lot of faces and hands.
But what he saw outside the base gates in the Philippines troubled him deeply. The already-poor nation had been ravaged by the war. Gaunt, hungry children crowded there to beg food from the Americans. It crushed Luther to see children in such need. He, and his buddies in the medical corps, took to collecting their mess meals and giving them to the children. They got their necessary calories by requisitioning dried foodstuffs at odd hours – a privilege granted to the medics – and reconstituting them in the hospital. It was so little, and yet all they could do. Those children would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Luther returned to the states and to California. Thanks to the GI bill, he and Kay were able to live on her earnings and his savings while he completed a four-year accounting degree in three years. He was done with starting grocery stores. He’d always dreamed of owning his own business and being his own boss, and this was the way to do it. After graduating and then acquiring his Public Accountant’s license, he joined a small firm that he would later come to own completely after his partner died. Meanwhile, again thanks to the GI Bill, he and Kay were able to buy a fixer-upper Victorian house across the street from their tiny flat. They were living the American Dream, though they were working damned hard to do it; accounting is not an easy business, not is waiting tables. But they were missing one thing: they couldn’t have children. So they finally got in touch with an adoption agency, and waited, and waited, and waited…
The call came in autumn of 1959; a baby was about to be born in a local hospital, and the parents were giving her up for adoption; they were poor, with two children already, and couldn’t afford another. Were Luther and Kay interested? Heck, yes! A lawyer drew up paperwork, and they waited anxiously for the baby to be born. Eventually I showed up, howling my way into life and shortly after into my parents’ arms. A girl! They’d hoped for a girl, but there was no technology to determine the sex of an unborn baby in 1959. But they’d take me no matter what. And so the American Dream was complete.
But the children in the Philippines haunted Luther, my dad. I remember him getting truly angry with me only once in all my childhood; I was middle-elementary-school age, old enough to know better, and I announced that nothing on the dinner table looked good to eat. He rose, furious, too furious to speak, and mother banished me to my study desk to think about what I’d done. I was far more distressed by making my dad angry than I could possibly be about my transgression, but we eventually patched it up.
Those children influenced what we did as a family. We tended to spend our weekends outside the city, and Dad grew an enormous vegetable garden and fruit orchard. Mama Kay canned food for the winter, but that amazing biomass of produce mostly went to hungry people outside the family. Later, as I became a teenager, my parents had acquired enough friends in the country that they would hear of fields being left for gleaning. We gleaned. I remember harvesting all kinds of off-size produce after the pickers had gone through and selected the supermarket-sized vegetables. There were tomatoes that ripened after the pickers had gone through, onions left to rot, squash, and various other veggies. There was a melon grower who would sell melons at a rock-bottom price to anyone who visited his packing yard; I remember Dad’s old Oldsmobile scraping bottom with the weight of the melons. Mom canned plenty, but the bulk of all that food went to friends, or friends of friends, or was left with the parish priest for strangers to pick up. Nobody that my parents knew, or knew of, was going to be food-insecure if they could help it.
After they retired, Luther and Kay kept up the feeding of everyone they possibly could, though age took its toll. Kay died in late 2002; Luther followed her in the summer of 2006, though not until he’d moved in with my husband and me and given us much joy with his company.
And those children of the Philippines, who haunted him so, have found a legacy in me; I’m proud to support a very excellent food bank in my area. Alas, I have no children to pass on the torch, but I’m hoping that other people will follow anyhow. Food insecurity in the US in 2015 is absolutely outrageous. We can make it better, if we really want to. Find a good food bank and donate; do it for a reluctant veteran.
Wow. Just, wow. A quiet, honest, beautiful legacy. Thank you for sharing Karen’s awesome story.