Heroes and rebels, fathers and sons

Thursday, July 22, 1999

(Editor’s note: Torres is a copy chief for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News. In his view, this essay “goes to the crux of the flag-burning debate[:] That these grizzled veterans went to war, perhaps unwittingly, to assure us the right to be free thinkers — no matter how unpopular the cause — and eventually reap the benefits of liberty.”)

It was a passing moment of youthful rebellion in the late 1960s, when I
told my father that I’d rather go to Canada than fight for my country.

My father, a proud veteran of World War II, who was cut down in a hail
Nazi gunfire during the Normandy invasion, seemingly shrugged it off.

I had made my statement against the Vietnam War and both of us walked
away, I with my youthful pretensions of moral superiority and he perhaps
with wounded feelings that his son would consider NOT fighting for his

Many years have passed. We’ve remained relatively close. He remains
the steadfast patriot of the family and I the free thinker.

Through the years, he’s resisted getting into the politics and
philosophies of which wars are right and which are wrong.

Perhaps 50 years ago, my father would have been happy to stay in the
family home near Melvin in Central Texas where farming and ranching were
— and remain — the only professions to which to aspire.

But at 18, he was taken away to Army basic training, then on a
transport to England and eventually to participate in the greatest military
invasion in the history of the world.

The beach, then the hedgerows of Normandy and Brittany. Frightful
moments. Gunfire from German defenders. Blood. Perhaps a cry for a medic. A rocky ride back across the Channel. A Mexican-American boy in England, home of the Magna Carta. Night sweats and pain and surgeries and a longing to see
his mother and father in Texas.

Then, months later, back home in an Army hospital in Texas where he
convalesced for many, many months.

There were signs back home, and they were not welcoming. “No Mexicans
or dogs allowed.” “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone.”

His children, sitting in a Greyhound bus station in the 1950s,
wondered whether they were entitled to drink at the “Whites Only” or “Negroes Only” water fountain. Being neither, we would not drink. We would wait. Our thirst would become much greater as the years rolled by. A thirst for education, then civil rights, then dignity.

My father would acknowledge these instances of discrimination. Wounded
first by Nazi gunfire, he was wounded again by the post-World War II
attitudes in America.

Eventually and inevitably, his children would meet resistance in their
quest for full citizenship. They would emerge with wounded pride and an
understanding that all the Magna Cartas and Bills of Rights in the world
could not help some people in Texas, the South and the Southwest.

The children of Gilberto Torres, my father, would sit near the two
water fountains, apprehensive about drinking at the wrong one. Unsure about
their place in society, no matter that their ancestors had been in Texas for
centuries and, in the case of their American Indian ancestors, thousands
of years.

Their father’s war ribbons and wounds would not dissuade society from
turning them away from restaurants, swimming pools, housing and

Nevertheless, my father will perhaps never understand how someone
could pick and choose wars. He loved his country unconditionally.

My father’s nightmare among the hedgerows and orchards of Normandy and
Brittany eventually paid off.

Guess what, Dad? Your sacrifices in Europe and then in segregated
Texas in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s made it possible for me to rebel, to rage at and question the system. The son of a Normandy invader. Free to think. Free to choose his wars.

For that, father, you remain my Army hero.