By Patrick Logan
Thursday, November 11, 2010; A29
The third conditional in English grammar is used to imagine a hypothetical past. It's a structure I've thought about a lot recently while reading the letters my father sent my mother during World War II.
Italian King Victor Emmanuel III handed over power to Mussolini on Oct. 28, 1922, one week after my father was born. Two decades later he and the men of his generation were on transport ships bound for destinations from which many would not return. Had they been born just a few years later, their experience of the war probably would have been limited to newsreels.
In 1943, three years after completing a barbering course, my father found himself in boot camp. He wrote to my mother, boasting of his good fortune: "I don't know whether they recognized me as lazy or what, but I certainly got a snap job. No gun, no equipment, nothing. I cut hair and have to be a nice little boy among the books and ping pong tables."
His division, the 88th Blue Devils, arrived in Naples in February 1944 and took up positions along the Gustav Line. The straight razor, comb and scissors he carried symbolized the power of the third conditional: If he had not taken the barbering course, he might have been carrying an M1 Garand rifle on the front lines.
After the fall of Rome that June, the men of the 88th were sent to the shores of Lake Albano for rest. It was there that my father's own awareness of a hypothetical past first appears in his letters: "The night we were bombed was about 3 in the morning. I woke up and the ground was trembling and shaking. Civilians were running down the path by our bivouac area to caves in a gully. Babies and women were crying. The night of the first raid, one of the boys held the wrong card. Where one of the bombs landed and where he slept were a heck of a distance. A piece of shrapnel had a million directions to go, but it only took one."
With thoughts of that piece of shrapnel and where it might have landed, my father made his way north until the Allied offensive ran out of steam in the foothills of the Apennines, north of Florence.
One Sunday morning in a village called Belvedere, two soldiers awaited orders: Johnny Garris pulled guard duty, leaving my father free to attend Mass. The service was interrupted by German artillery, forcing the congregation into the basement. After Mass, my father learned that Johnny had been killed in the shelling. He knew that their situations might easily have been reversed. If. . .
At stake was the postwar life that every GI was trying to imagine. In one letter he wrote: "Someday I expect to come home and fulfill a lot of plans I've made and live the way I want to."
Six months after the German surrender, my father finally made his way back to his New Hampshire village. He hung up his uniform and picked up his scissors. My mother - his wife of two years - took off the welder's mask she'd worn at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. They enjoyed 52 postwar years together. Their five children have enjoyed a total of 282 years. This is not just math; it's life. It was the vague dream my father was imagining while digging foxholes in the Apennines. It was an outcome that might have been denied by a random piece of shrapnel or an order to stand guard duty.
I thought of that if-clause last month when reading the announcement that four soldiers had been killed while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan:
Cpl. Justin J. Cain, 22, of Manitowoc, Wis.
Lance Cpl. Phillip D. Vinnedge, 19, of Saint Charles, Mo.
Lance Cpl. Joseph E. Rodewald, 21, of Albany, Ore.
Pfc. Victor A. Dew, 20, of Granite Bay, Calif.
We must feel this sacrifice. We must remember their service. Their dreams have ended. And each death conceals a clause that loved ones will repeat for years: "If only he hadn't . . . " The unfinished thoughts will hang in the air, silenced by the countless dreams of what might have been.
Patrick Logan, a freelance writer in New Hampshire, is writing a book about his relationship with his father.