When I think of my dad, I think of a lot of different things. I think of his hands steadying the seat of my bike as I pedaled my way down the sidewalk. I remember his wink as we both snuck a second popsicle on a hot summer evening. I think of my horror in finding that I’d been placed in his history class in ninth grade, and I think of the sheer joy and pride that shone on his face when I was accepted to college. There are other memories in there too—the furrow in his brow when he grounded me, his hand holding my mom’s when they told me she was sick. But as I watched my dad adjust his Vietnam Veteran baseball cap in the hotel mirror, I realized that there was a whole part of my dad that I didn’t always think of, but that he always would. I knew he’d served, of course, knew he’d been drafted in 1970 at 19 years old and steadfastly went on to serve our country for the next three years. When he’d asked me to come with him to visit his hometown of Kansas City, KS, I was happy to have the chance to see the city through his eyes and spend some time with him. He’d requested that we visit some of the city’s war memorials, and I knew that his time in Vietnam was on his mind. Approaching 70, he’d retired from his teaching career last year, and it felt like the right time to visit the city where he’d spent his youth.
The first stop on our list was the World War II Bomber Builders Monument, in the western part of Kansas City, KS. Dedicated in 1998, the simple monument is in a lovely spot near the Wyandotte County Museum. The smooth, grassy field surrounding it is peaceful and verdant, and the inscription on the monument pays homage to the nearly 60,000 workers who built more than 6,000 B-25 bomber airplanes right here in Kansas City, KS. Dad and I sat on one of the benches that line the red brick path to the monument, and he brought history to life, as he always does, describing the million square foot North American Aviation Plant, which would go on to become Boeing. Plants like this employed thousands of women, too, the archetype for Rosie the Riveter. I was astonished when Dad casually shared that his mom, my grandmother, had worked right here, on these planes. His pride in his mother’s contribution to the war effort was evident, even all these years later.
Next, we visited Memorial Hall in downtown Kansas City, KS. This massive auditorium space was built in 1925 to honor the fallen soldiers and sailors of World War I. The ornate facade includes a dedication, pillars, and statues, and is a regal contribution to the downtown architecture. It’s been used for concerts since the 60s, and some of my Dad’s friends got to see Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd there in the 70s. Patsy Cline played her last show there in 1963, before the tragic plane crash, and while my dad didn’t see that concert, his older sister did. Since the early 2000s, Memorial Hall has been home to the Kansas City Roller Warriors, a women’s roller derby team, so we planned to get tickets for the next night. We marveled at the constancy of such a building, standing for nearly 100 years, built to honor the sacrifice of a generation and bearing witness to everything from school assemblies to rock’n’roll to roller derby.
Rosedale Memorial Arch was next, and it made for a dramatic view, soaring nearly 40 feet tall, with the Kansas City, MO skyline in the background. It’s situated in a quiet park, with wrought iron fencing and shallow steps where we could sit and enjoy the view. Dad explained that the design of the arch was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and it was erected in honor of the WWI soldiers of the 42nd Rainbow Division. The Rainbow Division was formed from National Guard units representing 26 states, and got its name when General MacArthur noted that it would “stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” We spent a few minutes admiring the skyline, then took a short walk through the woods along the Rozarks Nature Trail, which has a trailhead right across the parking lot from the Rosedale Arch. Juxtaposed between the city skyline and the quiet peacefulness of the woods, the Rosedale Arch was the perfect pausing place, and I cherished the quiet moments I spent with my dad there. From there, he insisted that we stop by the nearby Rosedale BBQ for lunch, where they’ve been serving smoked and grilled barbeque since 1934. Dad said the brisket and baked beans tasted as good as they ever did in the 60s, and I have to say, my burnt ends and ribs were absolutely top-notch!
The final stop for the day was the Korean-Vietnam War Memorial, the first dual-war memorial in the country. I knew this would be tough for my dad—he rarely spoke of his time in Vietnam, but I knew it had profoundly changed him. The memorial is set on a grassy hill, with two granite semi-circles framing two life-size bronze soldier statues. The sculptor was obviously immensely talented; their faces are weary but stoic as they stand forever on guard. Someone had placed a bouquet of flowers in the hand of the Vietnam War soldier. We stood quietly together for a few moments, then my dad moved slowly along the plaques fixed to the granite wall. He paused, and I saw him run his fingers over a line of text. I thought of all the wonderful, happy memories my father had made with me over the years, of his intelligence and humor and passion for history. And I wondered what he was remembering, with his hand on those names, and his shoulders slumped, and his head down. After a moment, he took a deep breath and straightened, pulling his shoulders back and his head up. He turned to me and held out his hand. When I joined him, he spoke quietly of his friends in Vietnam, of the beautiful countryside and the camaraderie that comes with tight quarters. He protected me, as fathers do, from the worst of it, but for the first time in my memory, we talked about his getting drafted, and boot camp, and the jungle. And as we walked away, his steps seemed just a little lighter, his hand squeezed mine just a little tighter. I was overcome with gratitude for our time in Kansas City, KS, for the peace and care that came with the memorials we had visited, and the vital history the city had to offer.
Guest Blogger: E.J. LANDO