Song of my father
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:44 p.m.
Like many survivors of trauma, many veterans are reluctant to discuss their painful war experiences. Yet some war stories deserve telling, for the benefit of the listener if not the teller as well. When my father died in 1980, he took his untold World War II story with him … or so I thought.
Hear “Sunset on the Prairie” online
Positive response from veterans to “Sunset on the Prairie” led to creation of a video by David Beede for the song as a way to reach more veterans and hear more war stories. It can be viewed online at www.untoldwarstories.com, a website created by Rob Rothschild that allows veterans and their loved ones to share their stories of service.
My father and I were never close. He was a classic introvert. The son of homesteaders, he grew up on a farm in eastern South Dakota. His father, Benjamin, had moved there from Illinois in 1883, siblings in tow. The brutal winters, unyielding soil and loneliness of prairie life drove all but Benjamin back home.
Benjamin married late in life and fathered four children. My father, Robert Wayne McPeek, was the second child, born exactly a century ago. Benjamin’s untimely death in 1923 left the family to face the Great Depression and Dust Bowl on their own. My father’s quiet determination and self-sufficiency were survival skills.
Even more of an obstacle to our relationship was the limited time we spent together. A World War II veteran, my father, an experienced master sergeant, was recalled to the U.S. Army as the Korean problem escalated. He met my mother while training in Colorado. Two months after my birth in 1951, he left for his second war.
As I grew up, my father lived on army bases, while my mother and I lived in Waukegan, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, my mother’s birthplace and home to her large family. I saw my father for a few days each year for holidays, until I was 15 and he retired from the Army. He moved home briefly and then moved out. My parents were too used to living apart.
Not long after, my mother died of cancer, and my father moved back home. We were polite but distant, each coping with grief on our own. He took a job at the post office and I finished college, through the tumultuous years of Vietnam and Kent State.
I was a war-protesting pacifist, but to my surprise, my military father never expressed any disappointment. Instead, his letter of support helped my conscientious objector application to the U.S. Selective Service win approval.
It was the Woodstock era, and I was learning guitar. My ever-tolerant dad stoically endured the dreadful din of fledgling rock bands rehearsing in the basement. He sat uncomplaining in the living room and read Reader’s Digest condensed books or sat in the kitchen and painted landscapes.
My awkward efforts to engage him in “real” discussions were largely unsuccessful. When he died suddenly eight years after I left home, I lamented a lifetime of missed connections. He had shared precious little of his early life or war experiences. I had lacked the skill or maturity to ask.
Years after his death, in 1989, I was visiting Waukegan and stopped to show my childhood home to my wife. A young child was playing in the front yard, and his mother eyed us warily.
When I told her I grew up in the house, she asked if my name was McPeek. When I said yes, she replied, “Wait here. I have something for you.”
While remodeling the house years before — tearing off the roof and adding a second story — she discovered a dusty book hidden in the rafters. As she handed it to me, she said, “Now I know who I was saving it for.”
I was stunned. In my father’s ornate handwriting was the title “Rain or Mud: A Soldier’s Book of Verse” across the book’s handbound cover, inscribed over his proud signature.
Inside, on yellowing Red Cross stationery, were poems he’d written during World War II as he fought across North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
And thus I received one of the most amazing gifts I can imagine: 41 poems that offered a glimpse into my then 30-year-old father’s inner life, written as he faced death daily in a foreign land. Some poems explored grim themes. Most notable was “Paradox,” with these haunting lines:
In graceful sweeps of nonchalance the swallows still are flying
Above a scene of flashing guns where friend and foe are dying
He addressed the war in all its manifestations, from terror to boredom, with a sense of duty and resolute determination. Homesickness was a theme he returned to often in poems like “Prairie Sunset:”
Oh, a sunset on the prairie is a memory ‘cross the sea
From the prairies of Dakota to the shores of Sicily
More surprising to me were his romantic fantasies, a playful side of him that I had rarely, if ever, glimpsed, including an ode to a mysterious woman named Nikki, “a little Latin lassie in a California clime.” Real or fantasy? I’ll never know.
My father showed little interest in music during our time together, so I was surprised at his recurrent theme of haunting melody in poems, “I Hear a Melody,” “The Melody Lingers On” and “The Endless Song.”
By now more fluent on guitar, I set about trying to find that melody and make a song of his words. That quest proved elusive for two decades; nothing felt right until a trip to Italy in 2010 put me closer to its source. There, as I watched his flying swallows at a war memorial in Vicenza, I was overwhelmed by a sense of my father’s profound sacrifices.
That moment was the turning point in the creation of the song “Sunset on the Prairie.” Back home, guitar in hand, I found the tune in Dad’s ode to South Dakota sunsets; more accurately, it found me. From there, the song wrote itself. His poem recounting the places he visited framed the story line as the words dramatically shifted from daydream to the reality of war. The marching tempo melody for this part came to me in a dream, insistent enough that I woke up and sleepily sang it into my little recorder. My scientist’s mind pondered whether this spontaneous melody sprung from my unconscious was the same one that haunted my father 67 years earlier.
The song begged for a powerful ending. It came from Dad’s chilling words about the swallows flying above the battlefield. I added a few words reprising the opening sunset theme, now placed in an entirely different context, and the collaboration was complete.
Thus the song “Sunset on the Prairie” finally brought father and son together.
Fittingly, our connection has in turn opened new lines of communication, something I hadn’t really expected. For example, after hearing the song performed at the annual Veterans for Peace Winter Solstice concert, war veterans have been moved to tell me their own amazing stories. In my own family, the song has made its way to distant cousins, who have shared new details about their relationships with my father and new details of his life teaching school — before the war changed everything.
So I approach the age when my father passed with a newfound appreciation of his depths and artistic sensibilities, of the reasons for his absence in my youth, of the frustrations of army life — and the toll it all took on him. And now I understand why he supported my pacifist beliefs when the draft came calling for me.
So, Dad, may your words enjoy a bit of the immortality they deserve. With your patience, I did finally learn the guitar, and I trust I have put it to good use. I hope this balances the ledger a little bit. I just wish it had happened sooner.