Richard Snow: The Man Who Left, the Father Who Came Back

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard Snow, the former editor of American Heritage magazine, is the author of “A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II.”]

MY father, Richard B. Snow, was happily running his own Manhattan architecture practice when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he was quickly taken into a service that needed people who knew about structures.

The Navy gave him a good job: he put on a nice, new uniform and every couple of days went to Brooklyn or Staten Island to inspect new shipyards and barracks and all the other buildings being conjured up by the war, making sure that the support beams were in the right places, that there were enough fire hydrants. On the way home to sleep in his own bed, he’d be saluted by sailors back from fighting the German U-boats in the Atlantic.

He hated it. Years later, he said: “I began to feel, I’m riding up and down in the subway in a uniform. What kind of a way is this for a man my age to spend his life when we’re really engaged in a war?” Born in 1905, he was over-age for combat service, but eventually he told my mother that if she let him put in for sea duty, he would write her every day. She reluctantly agreed. He came very close to keeping his promise....

From his ship, he had once written her, “I like the morning watch best, in spite of having to get up at 3:15 a.m. to start it, for there is something very pleasant about starting the watch in total darkness — often with no visibility whatever, and gradually, imperceptibly, have a little light steal over the ship, coming from no apparent source. Later it is intensified on the eastern horizon — and finally if it is not too cloudy you see the sun rise.”

And that’s the way he healed, coming imperceptibly from total darkness into the everyday light. Eventually, he joined another firm, and went on to design buildings for four more decades. During that retrieved life, he had me....

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