Our generation has one name: Baby Boomers. Our parents’ generation has a couple: the Greatest Generation, and The Silent Generation. It is that latter characteristic, silence, that bothered Karen Fisher-Alaniz, because when she tried to learn about her own father’s background, that’s all she got: silence. She tells the story in her book, Breaking the Code – a Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything. She now calls her dad, My Secret Hero.
What if one of your parents was a hero? What if they had a life that played like a movie— filled with intrigue and danger? What if you never knew? Since the parents of baby boomers were the combatants of World War II, there might be a lot of us.
I thought I knew my father. I guess we all think that. But then on his 81st birthday he put two weathered notebooks on my lap. Inside were more than 400 pages of letters he’d written to his own parents during WWII. He had little to say about them. No matter how many questions I asked, my father, a man known for his incredible memory — couldn’t remember. But I had to know.
Each night I read a handful of those letters. I wrote down my questions and saved them for our weekly breakfast together. Sometimes my father would finally answer my queries; often he would not. Weeks turned into months, and months into years. When the truth finally came to the surface, I was shocked.
My father was a top secret code breaker!
Working in naval intelligence, he was at two major battles of the war; Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Aboard ships and submarines, he copied the complicated code based on the Japanese writing system, Katakana. My father, now elderly and walking with a cane, had once scaled the side of a ship with communications equipment strapped to his back as bullets cut through the air. It was impossible to imagine.
He was sworn to secrecy. He’d kept his secrets for more than fifty years. Talking about it now had its costs. Memories of the things he saw, the experiences he had, stabbed their way to the surface. Nightmares and flashbacks were the norm.
I was riddled with guilt. I pondered whether I should have just stayed quiet. Should I have simply read the letters and put them back on the shelf? I pleaded with my father to see a counselor. He refused.
Exasperated one day, and filled with guilt, I said, “Dad, you need to talk to someone – someone who can help you.”
“I am talking to someone,” he replied. “You.”
It’s been a few years since that day. In the process of telling his story, pain came to the surface. But healing followed. By doing something so very simple, I was able to help the man who guided me through life. I simply listened. Through that simple act of listening, I was introduced to someone I thought I knew – my father, my hero.