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Memorial Day with my Father-in-Law

Lloyd Sabin, May 25 2012

He is ‘Pop’ to my daughters, ‘Dad’ to my wife, and ‘Sir’ to me. He is my father-in-law and he is one of the more unique people I have ever met.

The man has a photographic memory and is most likely a certifiable genius. He is by far one of the most intelligent people I know. If there is a hardware problem around the house, whether plumbing, electrical, or carpentry, his 50 years of experience helps him instantly find a solution and implement it.

He reads probably a book a day and prefers Tom Clancy, military fiction, and spy novels. He enjoys swimming, hiking with his gigantic Rottweiler Milo, and spending time with his four daughters and four grandchildren.

Modest almost to a fault, he remains quiet until spoken to, even at his own dinner table and I can recall watching him lose his temper only once in 15 years.


Ceremony is meaningful to him. I remember clearly when I asked for his oldest daughter’s hand in marriage that he demanded I ask in his study, behind closed doors, hat literally in hand. He also did not say yes right away. There were certain things I had to do in order to get his blessing and I did eventually perform these requirements. At that point he laughed out loud, told me he loved me and gave me a big bear hug.

And when he hugs you (I think he’s hugged me twice) it really is like a bear hug. He is not a small person, measuring about 6’2” and weighing in at about 235 pounds. He could easily break me.


His professional life is one of the more fascinating that I know of. He went to the same high school in Brooklyn that I and most of my immediate family attended and graduated in 1962. He was a few years ahead of my mother and her cousins so they did not know him at the time. He was on the honor role and the boxing team.

From there he attended Brooklyn College and studied Greek mythology and biology. After Brooklyn, he was accepted to Georgetown Medical School and earned an MD in Urology and was also trained as a surgeon. I have been told that he never wanted to be a doctor, but in the 1960s there were not too many outlets for Jewish professionals to go into, and his mother “recommended” medicine as a career path. And to think that the man who never wanted to be a doctor chose urological surgery to practice. That’s a career’s worth of ‘pecker checking’ as he and his family call it.

Attending Georgetown really molded my father-in-law. He enjoyed his time there and absorbed the lessons espoused by the clergy, much of which he still instills in his family today. A strong sense of humility and teaching traditional Christian values are major parts of his character, which some may find ironic since he is Jewish. Thinking about it, though, it makes perfect sense: do unto others as you would have done to you, be generous, listen…none of these things are solely ‘Christian’ but I think my father-in-law always enjoyed the irony of an old Jewish man asking his grandchildren to ‘be more Christian.’ He’s quirky like that.

Around the same time that my father-in-law graduated from Georgetown, the Vietnam War was raging. His older brother, also a doctor, had spent six months in the US Navy, on the beach, basically surfing and tanning, according to my father-in- law. My father-in-law was in danger of being drafted now that he was out of medical school, and managed to scrounge up a US Army Reserve position in the Army Medical Corps.


This was a formative moment in his life. While in college and medical school, most of my father-in-law’s friends were drafted, and almost all of them went to Vietnam. His best friends, the ones he was very close to, were killed in action. I do not know how many of them there were, but I do know not to probe too much. Like my grandfather, my father-in-law does not talk much about this part of his life, despite how formative it was.

Starting in 1969, he spent about 25 years in the USAR and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He studied at the US Army War College, worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and held various positions at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. To this day people around town still call him Colonel, and he is very proud of his years of service.

He has taken me down to his basement library and has showed me some of the texts he studied while in the service. Many of them made my head spin. They included nuclear war studies, disaster planning and an array of related subjects, including what-if scenarios on how the US Army would react to a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland and subsequent break-up of the country, circa 1980. The topics he has studied run the gamut from the Vietnam War through the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War. Though retired when the Iraq War was raging and at its worst, he received multiple correspondences from the Army asking if he would return to duty, or if he knew anyone who would like to serve. He never responded.

Naturally I have always found my father-in-law’s service record fascinating and I looked up to him and respected him for it. While married to his oldest daughter, I flirted with the idea of Army service more than once, and each time my father-in-law told me he would personally break my legs if I even went near a recruiting office. It never made much sense to me until my wife mentioned that deep down, her dad was a pacifist. And although he has not specifically mentioned it, his service can be directly linked to his loss.


That took me aback. Here was a man who spent most of his adult life serving with the US Army, who claimed to have enjoyed it and relished in the study of military subjects. And he was a pacifist. How does that work? He is proud of his service record and a patriot. So why break my legs? I would not dare ask him for fear of him kicking my ass. But it was the study of war and all the sciences related to it that stimulated him...the science of it, not the practice of it. At the same time, he is obviously attempting to protect his family from the same type of loss he suffered directly, and helped thousands of others wrestle with professionally.

It took my mother-in-law to really get the point across to me. Personally, my father-in-law lost his best friends to the Vietnam War. Professionally, working as an Army Doctor, he saw the worst that war is capable of. And even though he did not go overseas, he invested tens of thousands of man hours working with the men who did come back, but not completely. Most likely a pacifist from a very early age, my father-in-law’s education and then his military experience solidified his world view and his opinion on war. It is formed both from personal loss and years of professional experience. It is hard to get a more well-formed opinion than that. In these ways, every day has been Memorial Day for him since 1969. He has worked tirelessly for over 40 years to alleviate the pain of loss of others through war.


On this Memorial Day, I honor what my father-in-law lost because of war and how he made a military career out of helping others who have lost.

I salute you, Sir.

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