Search for my dad
A daughter makes peace, at last, with her father, an ‘unclaimed veteran’ from Sacramento
A box came to my home today.
It contained an American flag folded and carefully placed inside a plastic bag. It also held an envelope from Veterans Affairs containing a copy of a eulogy. There were photos of my dad, Bob Chester and a spattering of awards for rescues and community service.
How was I supposed to feel?
I’d searched for my dad most of my life.
He’d served in the Navy during World War II. Dad was a young man, proud to fight and do his duty. While in Germany he rescued prisoners of war from concentration camps, helped save valuable artwork from the Germans and rescued fellow sailors and soldiers, receiving medals and accommodations for heroism and bravery.
Returning to Germany after his discharge, he married a German girl he met during the war. They had three daughters. All seemed right in Dad’s world until the day his wife and daughters were killed by a drunk driver. He felt his life was over; so he re-enlisted during the Korean War, returned to the states, met and married my mother. Within the next six years, the three of us were born.
Once again, Dad had a wife and three daughters. Perhaps we eased the pain of his loss. But his marriage with my mom was fraught with hardships. Dad lost his job. Unable to find work, they lost their dream home in Oregon to foreclosure. Homeless, we became migrant workers, relocating to California when I was 4 years old. The next several years, Dad was plagued by the lack of work, and he and Mom separated when I was 7.
Mom was the appointed guardian. Dad took us trick-or-treating on Halloween, him holding the flashlight, walking with us protectively. Thanksgiving found Dad at the head of the table, carving the turkey. My eighth birthday came and Christmas was upon us, with all its hope and promise. Anxious to give the presents we made in Sunday school, Dad picked us up on Christmas Eve.
Unbeknownst to us, Dad had the car packed with everything he owned. He said we were going to drive around looking at Christmas lights. We believed him. He had hot chocolate and cookies to eat while we drove. The chocolate was thick and sweet, warming our throats and tummies. We fell asleep in the car, chocolate mustaches decorating our smiling faces, unaware of what was truly happening.
I wonder if Dad took us out of fear of losing his family again. Or did he take us to somehow save us? I don’t know. But he did take us, driving from California to Oregon. Mom didn’t know where we went, or what, if anything, happened to us.
After eight months, our prayers were answered. Finally, Dad called her. Mom drove nonstop to Eugene. My parents tried to get back together, but it just didn’t work. They decided to give us a choice. Can you imagine the anguish when asked to choose between two people you love? How do you decide? Whose heart do you break? “You can stay in Oregon with Dad, or go back to California with your mom.”
My two sisters spoke up immediately, “We want Mommy!” My heart wanted to go with my mother, but my love and loyalty said I needed to stay with Dad. I still remember the taste of salt as the tears rolled down my face.
Dad and I lived in Oregon and Seattle. I felt disconnected, uprooted and lonely for my mother and sisters. When I started to develop at age 9, Dad didn’t think he could handle my onset of puberty, so I went back to California. He knew Mom’s address and took me there. She never knew we were coming. I walked up and knocked on the door. I remember the smell of frying chicken, coming out to greet me as I stepped onto the porch. My hand was shaking as I reached for the door and knocked. It had been so long since I had seen her, when she answered the door, I looked at her through tear-glistened eyes, asking in a whispered voice, “Mama?”
We cried and hugged as my sisters ran over to join us. Dad promised he would stay in California. We would still be a family.
For a while, it was true, he did stay nearby. We spent weekends at Dad’s and had family dinners. Everything seemed perfect. But our happiness only lasted a year. Dad came to visit one Saturday morning. He simply kissed us goodbye and left, saying he was moving to Missouri and that he would write.
I was 10 years old. I never saw or heard from him again.
Eventually, Mom remarried and we wound up moving to Yuba City, a town 30 miles north of Sacramento. I sent letters to my Dad in care of his brother in Oregon, who, unable to forward the letters, kept them in a shoe box. On a visit to my uncle’s house at age 19, he gave me back the letters. It was heartbreaking to see them unopened. The letters expressed how we were good, hardworking people; never arrested, did well in school, didn’t do drugs, smoke, drink and didn’t get pregnant. I’d wanted my dad to be proud of us.
I felt anger, fear, abandonment and finally emptiness; a void so large, because I thought I meant nothing to him. I felt I was an afterthought.
But in October of 2007, a bittersweet irony occurred. I found him. He’d been living in Sacramento and I never knew.
A local Channel 13 newscast told about a man named Wes Nell fighting to claim the cremated remains of his longtime friend from a room of unclaimed veterans in Sacramento. His friend’s name was Bob Chester, my dad. The video scanned a room resembling a storage unit for apothecary jars. I felt sadness for all the unclaimed, unhonored, forgotten veterans and heroes who never got the funeral and respect they deserve from a grateful country.
When they showed a photo on the wall of Wes’ home, I knew I was looking at my Dad. I’d found him at last. He had passed away just four months earlier, on June 12, at the age of 82.
I contacted Wes, who put me in touch with the coroner and Veterans Affairs. Once I proved who I was, they sent me an envelope with the contents of my dad’s wallet and military papers.
There were photos of my family, too. There was one of me as a baby and one of us together with my sister. There was another of me at age 9. They were old and tattered at the edges, but their message was clear. We had not been afterthoughts. The photos proved it. He had loved us until the day he died.