Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss.

FWD dog tags - 500 wide.jpg

I haven’t posted much lately. Hey, how many more times do you want to hear “I threw another metric shitload of stuff into boxes”? That’s been my life, more or less, for several weeks.

Well, today, I was packing books and other things in my office into boxes (yet again) and happened upon the little box of things that came to me from my father: his gas company tie tack, a Lane Tech prom favor, his Holy Name Society lapel pin, one of my grandfather’s medals from WWI, his WWII service medal, his Ruptured Duck, his corporal’s stripes, and finally–by then I had to reach for a Kleenex–his WWII dog tags.

My father signed up for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor. He was 19. He wanted to be in the infantry, but he had a crooked leg and a limp and didn’t qualify. The Army told him to finish his freshman year of college at Northwestern, and told him there’d be a spot at radio operator school waiting for him in June. There was some grumbling, especially since he hated the accounting curriculum his father had browbeaten him into taking, but so it was. That June he went to Scott Field in southern Illinois, and became one helluva radio operator. He was in the AACS, and could copy Morse in his head at 30+ WPM and hammer it out on a beat-up Olivetti mill all night long. He had a job and threw himself into it with everything he had–it was his way–but what he really wanted to do was shoot Germans.

This always puzzled me, and it had nothing to do with my ancestry–or his. It took me decades to figure it out, and I had to dig for clues in a lot of odd places. He told a lot of stories, and I heard a few more from my mother and Aunt Kathleen, his sister. Once I was in my forties and had put a little distance between myself and my father’s long, agonizing death, I could deal with the troubling reality: My father was a wiseass, a snot, a fighter, a dare-taker. He was suspended several times from high school for fighting (and once beat the crap out of a much taller kid after the kid had stabbed him in the stomach in wood shop) and took a fifth year to finish. Limp or no limp, he had at age 45 broken up a fight in Edison Park single-handed, while my little sister watched in astonishment. He was literally throwing teenaged boys in every direction until they quit beating on a smaller boy at the bottom of the pile. Limp or no limp, he dove into deep water once and hauled a drowning man back to shore under one arm. (He was all muscle, and swam like a shark.) I used to think of him as brave, but no: He was fearless, and that is not the same thing.

To be brave is to do what you know you have to do in spite of your fear. To be fearless is to just wade in and kick ass, damn the consequences. There were consequences, like six stitches in his stomach and being held back a year in school. I hate to think what might have happened if he had made the infantry. I might have ended up being some other man’s son.

He knew this, of course, and as I grew into my teens I think he was trying to guide me away from fearlessness and toward bravery, not that I had ever shown the least measure of fearlessness. (One of his weirdest failings as a parent was this unshakable assumption that I would grow up to be exactly like him.) He had a saying for it: “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” The lesson was not to let fear paralyze you, but instead let it calibrate you. Fear can turn down the volume on your enthusiasm and force you to take stock of your resources and your limitations. I got that, and have done as well as I have by balancing enthusiasm with discernment. Only one other piece of advice from my father (“If you’re lucky and smart you’ll marry your best friend”) has ever served me better.

As I’ve mentioned here a number of times, our house is positioned on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain such that we can hear the bugle calls (and cannon!) from Fort Carson, two miles downslope. We hear taps most nights, and I realize (now that most of the house is at last in boxes) that I won’t be hearing it a great many more times, and almost certainly not again on Veterans’ Day. Tonight I will go out on the deck again and salute both the brave and the fearless, my father and countless others who have kicked ass in the service of their countries. Some missed, many didn’t, and the lucky ones came home to tell their stories and raise their (sometimes peculiar) sons.

I am by no means fearless, and I sincerely hope that I never have to be truly brave. However, if I ever have to kick ass, I will. And thanks to a man who knew the difference between bravery and fearlessness, when that time comes, I will not miss.


  1. Bob Fegert says:

    Putting 1756 W Olive Ave, Chicago, IL
    into instantstreetview
    takes you to this fine little home 🙂,-87.673545,-38.74h,0.8p,2z

    This is the back yard view,-87.67363,-167.31h,-1.61p,0z

    I think it’s 1756 .. the ‘6’ is a bit hard to read on the dog tag.

    1. No, 1756 is the house. I was there a lot when I was very young (my grandparents lived there until early 1956) and the address is in all my father’s books. I’ve been by it recently (I think 2005 or so) and yup, that’s the one. I remember watching steam locomotives go by on a train track at the end of the block, and that may be one of my earliest date-able memories.

  2. Tom Roderick says:

    A very moving piece Jeff. Having been right on the edge of a war 40 years ago I have deep and undying respect for those who were a lot closer and more involved than I. Courage is not the absence of fear, but of fear being overcome by love — love of country, love of family, love of the buddy next to you — that you put the fear aside and do what you have to do.

  3. Carrington Dixon says:

    Interesting that the dog-tags have a civilian home address on them. I don’t recall my father’s WWII era dog-tags having such. (I still have them but packed away after several moves.) I know that my own Vietnam-era dog-tags have no such. (Gives the bad guys way too much information if you are captured.)

    1. I don’t know if that was because my father enlisted before he was 21. (He was 19.) Harry Duntemann was his father and next of kin, and that was where they lived. Agreed about the bad guys.

      The 8-digit number is his serial number, which he put on a lot of his things, for some reason. (He cited it as “1609D6995,” but the ‘D’ isn’t on his tags or any of his papers. I assume it’s his last initial.) I don’t know what “T42” stood for, nor what the “C” and “B” indicated.

      1. Carrington Dixon says:

        By my day, dog-tags had blood-type on them. “B” could be that; on the other hand, there used to be a quite different system of blood-typing in use before the war. I had an aunt who had been an Army nurse. At age 90 she could still remember her blood-type under the old system but not under the new. Any or none of those might be the blood-type under the old system.

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