I recently drove north on I-85 out of Atlanta and near the South Carolina border, was tempted to take the exit marked “Toccoa.”

Bruce Wallace

Bruce Wallace

That’s the town where my dad, a New York City kid, spent his 19th birthday.

He didn’t get any birthday cake, however, he was a little busy training to survive World War II.

“We knew it was a ‘fight,'” my dad would say of the war, “but we knew if we paid attention in training, worked hard and worked together, there was a decent chance we would survive. I always called training ‘survival training.'”

It was one of the many stories I got from my dad about his war years.

Dad said the scenery of northern Georgia was quite beautiful. “I should know,” he said, “we walked all over the damned place.”

Since they didn’t have a rifle range at Toccoa, the troops would march 30 miles north to Clemson College (now Clemson University), then a military school with a rifle range.

Ever go to Atlanta, dad?

“Yeah, we went to Atlanta. So we could catch a train to get to a troop ship to go overseas. Not exactly the weekend we were looking forward to.”

Dad’s stories were usually funny as he told me about some of the characters he lived and trained with. Sometimes his stories were filled with frustration with the lesson of, “You can do things the right way, the wrong way or the Army way.”

But dad didn’t tell too many “war stories” and his subsequent time of living in occupied Japan without telling me about arriving back home at Penn Station in 1946.

“The neighborhood was not the same and would never be the same,” he told me. Then he would proceed to give me some insight to some of his buddies who did not make it back from the war.

The third baseman on his baseball team.

The kid who played the piano so beautifully in church.

The cost of war. Dad always reminded me of the cost of war. “There’s nothing romantic about it,” he would say.

I would suspect my nephew, Brad, would agree with his grandfather.

As a journalist, I was lucky to have a dad who would tell me his stories and give me some details when I asked questions.

Other veterans have been just as kind when I asked them for their story.

• There was the Army Captain in south Texas who told me the only story he thought I needed to know – about the day(s) his unit came upon a concentration camp in Germany.

• There was the Air Force airman who told me about the first night he took a drink of whiskey in Vietnam – the night he woke up and saw a missle roar through his unit’s tent and explode some 50-yards away. “It could not have zipped more than 5-10 feet from me,” Ron, now a retired bank officer, told me. “A few of us were so shaken, the commanding officer ordered us a ration of whiskey and sent us to back to bed.”

• There was the son of a good friend who was nearly jailed for shirking his duty. “I had fire duty at Fort Leonard Wood,” Ryan said. “I looked all around the building and saw all these smoke alarms and found a comfortable place to sit.” The sergeant who found him asked him why he wasn’t guarding the barracks. Ryan told him there were plenty of fire alarms and he thought it would be more productive for him to use his time better. “The sergeant let me know I wasn’t supposed to think,” Ryan laughs at himself, “and I got to think about that as I moved a pile of gravel, one wheelbarrow load at a time, from one side of camp to the other the next morning. It was a BIG pile of gravel.”

War stories – both those tragic and funny – are important as a part of a family history, as well as giving insight to why young men and women serve their country, what they do and why they (nearly always) think that it is some of the most important years of their lives.

We will gather at the high school on Friday afternoon and pay tribute to our veterans, but one of the best things you can do is to ask your dad, grandfather, sister, cousin or any other relative what they did when they were in the military.

Their stories will often tell you why these heroes should remain important to us, sometimes those stories will leave you in awe. Most of these stories are valuable to the family history as well as to a continual appreciation for our military heroes.

By Bruce Wallace