My father, Thomas J. Riordan, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 6, 1940. He was 18, war was in the air, and if he ever told me why he was so keen to serve his adopted country (he emigrated here from Wales), I must have forgotten.
I do know that he was a turret gunner's mate on the USS Wisconsin, the great battleship about which he told many a story. The Wisconsin sailed majestically in a commemorative photo on the wall above the TV for decades in our house in North Adams, Massachusetts. "She was like a floating city," my father often said.
World War II was far from being ancient history while I was growing up in the '50s and '60s. My uncles were veterans, my parents often socialized at the American Legion, and on Memorial Day we bought those little plastic poppies the veterans sold. And we always visited the cemetery, where countless little flags waved.
Years later, when I was 32, I surprised my dad by arranging for us to tour the Wisconsin, then moored at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Needless to say, he was thrilled, talking a mile a minute (like father, like son) and dredging up stories I hadn't heard before.
If only I had recorded or memorized our entire time together on board that floating city. But I will never forget how it felt to stand next to my father on the enormous deck he had last walked as a young man of 23, in 1945.
"Kevin," he said, "I can't tell you how much this pleases me."
On Memorial Day this year, when I visit the cemetery where we laid my father to rest in 1995, I'll bring along one of those poppies. I'll wind it around the pole of the little flag that waves on his grave and tell him, thank you for your service, Dad. Thanks for everything.