May 30th, 2011

A Memorial Day 2011 Tribute to My Favorite Veteran

I consider myself very lucky to have had not one but two great fathers: Biological dad and stepdad. Stepdad, who was simply Hjalmer to me, was once known as Lt. Col. Hjalmer J. Erickson, Jr.; his father had been a leading commander in World War I, and Hjalmer served with distinction in both World War II (the Pacific) and the Korean War. He was not only awarded with numerous honors (including three Purple Hearts), but he'd also been the Army's champion sharpshooter for three years in a row. After leading his soldiers to take a small Pacific Island during World War II, the Japanese - mistaking him for General MacArthur - surrendered directly to him.

Now, this was a man with the military in his blood - he was educated at exclusive officer training schools, and suffered from lifelong medical problems (including shrapnel in his spine and jungle rot on his feet) as a result of his combat experience. By now you might be picturing either a highly-disciplined, by-the-book military man, or the movies' typical tortured ex-vet.

In Hjalmer's case, nothing could have been further from the truth. He was smart enough to make money on the stock market, kind to animals and worshipful of my mom, and possibly the funniest man I've ever known. And how's this for literary: He and my mom met when she joined the staff of a college bookstore he managed.

Although I was in my teens by the time my mom and Hjalmer met, Hjalmer proved to be an important and wonderful influence in my life. He taught me everything from how to drive stickshift to self-defense (he'd been one of the army's top self-defense instructors, and he pulled no punches with that stuff, let me tell you). He could reduce me to tears by making the infamous "kitty face" pictured here. He made my mom laugh every morning by peering into the mirror and muttering, "Damn, I'm handsome!" He even made morbid jokes (which of course he knew I loved) about some of his soldiering days ("Hell, I used to eat my lunch sitting on dead bodies!").

My mom said some of that sense of humor did cover some darker things, like nightmares about still being at war. And the jungle rot was terrible - we'd fix him special foot baths to try and ease the pain of his poor cracked, raw-looking feet.

Hjalmer died very unexpectedly in 1988, on June 4th. He was 66. He was still in great health - played 18 holes of golf twice a week, had no history of heart problems. I've always suspected that perhaps some of that shrapnel finally dislodged and found its way to his heart. He was buried with a full military salute in Oregon, and I still miss him.

Lt. Col. Hjalmer J. Erickson, Jr. - I salute you, sir!