by

Lorna K. Grant

 

            Not every hero fought in a war.

           

           SMSgt. Carl A Bales, USAF (Deceased), is a hero, though he never set foot on a battlefield.  He enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, though only served one year at a base in Thailand during hostilities.  He went on to serve his country for 22 years, a career military man.

 

            So why is he a hero?

 

            According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hero is “a man admired for his achievements and qualities.”  That definition fits my father. 

 

            Some of my first memories are of him taking me to air shows on base, lifting me up on his shoulders as we walked around.  I thought I could touch the clouds on top of his 6’7” frame.  To me he was a giant of a man, even when I grew in height.

 

            At every base we were stationed, he was always involved in the local Boy Scouts, taking the time to teach others.  If he wasn’t with the Scouts, you could find him on the softball diamond, pitching or coaching.  Some of my fondest memories of my dad are on the diamond, legging out a double because he couldn’t stop his long legs, or stopping a line drive with his bare hand, breaking two of his fingers.

 

            But what does this have to do with being a hero?  To me, everything.  It shows the kind of man he was, with a heart of gold and as big as Alaska.

 

            When we were stationed at Chanute AFB, Illinois, we lived in a trailer court in the country, outside of a little town named Gifford.  The landlord was an elderly farmer, and a great big bear of a man.  When Dad wasn’t working, he helped the landlord in the fields, or around the trailer court.  One winter, a severe blizzard hit us, and we all took shelter in the landlord’s house.  My dad helped guide the residents through the cold, blinding snow. 

 

            After it was over, drifts loomed over homes, and buried cars.  Most of the heat in the trailers was natural gas, and the pilot lights needed to be relit.  My father and another man volunteered.  When Dad went to light one furnace, it exploded.  Severely burned on his arms and neck, and 20 miles from the nearest hospital on unpassable roads, the neighbors transported my father to the base hospital on a snowmobile.  He recovered and used to joke that now he had a permanent tan.

 

            That’s the kind of man my father was – always joking, always turning a negative into a positive.  And always being there when needed.

 

            On January 1, 1980, while stationed at Lajes Field, Azores, a massive earthquake struck in the afternoon.  We were all at a Squadron picnic in an old Quonset hut, celebrating the New Year when it hit.  I was only a few weeks shy of my eleventh birthday, and quite frightened to feel the solid earth moving violently under my feet.  Some picnickers, also never having experienced such a show of nature, panicked. 

 

            But not my father.  He and several other men calmed everyone down, and went to check the damage.  After seeing their families safely home and checking for any damage to their own homes, my father and several men he worked with drove out to the Fuel Farm to check the tanks that held the aviation fuel.

 

            After everything was checked, my father joined other American soldiers from the base and helped the islanders dig out from the rubble, searching for survivors and what few material possessions could be found among the debris.  I remember my father being absent quite a bit as they helped the island back on its feet.  Most of the buildings on the tiny island were centuries old, and crumbled easily as the earth swayed.  For helping others, and what he thought of as basic human nature, my father received a Humanitarian Service Medal.  He said he felt honored, but that he just did what needed to be done. 

 

I’ve found that most heroes utter those same words.  That’s part of what makes them a hero.

 

Later, when we were stationed at Altus AFB, Altus, Oklahoma, my father continued to “do what needed to be done.”  He still played softball, and even got me out on the diamond as a pitcher, but he also helped those servicemen and women far from home.  Many times he brought home a young airman or woman for a home cooked meal or a place other than the barracks to spend the holidays.  I remember how much he worried about those under his command, and when in trouble, he would do all he could for them, hoping they would make the right decision.

 

He taught me a love of the past, not only history, but in music and movies.  Many a Sunday afternoon was spent watching John Wayne, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda movies.  He opened my eyes to the wonderment of history – not the history taught in the textbooks, but history as it was lived by the men who shaped it.  If it weren’t for my father, I would never have heard of Pappy Boyington, Robert Morgan, or the Defenders of Wake Island, and other countless heroes and heroines.

Through his actions, he showed me what it meant to be an American, a patriot, and proud of our veterans.  It was the way he stood at attention when the anthem was played, and the wistful look on his face at the sounding of “Taps” late at night.  It was the way he listened to the stories, leaning in towards the speaker, as if they had single handedly defeated the enemy, and without them, the cause would have been lost.  It was the tears in his eyes as he spoke of his younger brother, killed in Vietnam.

 

Though my father didn’t give his life’s blood for his country, he gave his life nonetheless, in his military service to his country.  This above all else makes him a hero in my eyes.  He didn’t have to do it – his two brothers were already serving in the Army and he wouldn’t have been drafted.  When I once asked him why he joined the Air Force, he joked that it was better than being drafted in the Army, and when I pressed for a more serious answer, he just shrugged and said, “I just did what needed to be done.”

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After hearing and reading so many stories of veterans from the last 100 years, I understand what he meant, what they all mean when they speak those words.  Serving their country was a honor, a privilege.   To them, they are not heroes; it’s the other guy next to them.  But to me, my father was a hero.  They all are.