My father, Timothy H. Peary, graduating from the Citadel in 1965

My happiest memory with my father was when we went to see Red Dawn in the summer of 1984. I was 10 years old and all my friends were jealous because my father took me to see rated R movies like Rambo and Red Dawn way before the other kids. We always saw these at Mugs & Movies, just my dad and me. Then I would grill him about the military accuracy of the films and if he had ever done anything like Rambo did in Vietnam. He told me all sorts of interesting facts about how the Vietcong would set punji stick traps and how the bamboo grew so thick a tank couldn’t plow through it, how he woke up in the middle of the night during a mortar attack and had the stairs explode beneath him, throwing him down into the bomb shelter.

Anyway, my happiest moment was when we got home from watching Red Dawn, my father grabbed a drink and walked the perimeter of our property, discussing with me how we could defend ourselves against an invading force. He really lit up. He spent time with me, recommending options and listening to my ideas. He explained why we couldn’t just cover the driveway with dead tree branches. We really connected that day over a similar interest and I saw a passion in him that I rarely got to witness.

My second happiest moment was when he took me to the Army-Navy surplus store that used to be on North Monroe and bought me everything he thought a soldier should have – uniform, boots, helmet, rucksack, utility belt, trenching tool, canteen, the works. It wasn’t my birthday; it wasn’t any holiday. He just wanted to do this for me. He knew we enjoyed the same movies and my favorite toy at the time was GI Joe, so he just took some time with me one weekend and suited me up. Again, I was the coolest kid in my class. He took me out in the woods and showed me how to dig a foxhole, which took forever with a trenching tool and all the roots. He showed me how to shoot with a .22 rifle, how to adjust my sights, and mark a target. He even showed me land navigation with a map and compass and a red filter on my bent-necked flashlight so the enemy couldn’t see you at night. Years later when I was in AROTC at Tulane, I won the land navigation challenge during our FTX and I credit father with that victory.

My father teaching me how to ride

My father taught me a lot of things. He taught me how to sail, how to ride a horse, how to deal with a bully (a story for another time). But the greatest thing he taught me, the lesson I didn’t even realize I had learned – that I’m still not sure I’ve completely learned, but if I have, I am forever grateful, and that is – he taught my heart to seek the right thing. Like a compass seeking north, his heart was always searching for the next right thing to do. What is the honorable thing to do? How can I serve my community, my church, my country? What is the right thing to do here? Right for whom?

After an agonizing six years of trying to figure out who I was, moving to four different states, and attending half a dozen colleges, I ended up with a degree in English and Philosophy. I definitely got my love of reading from my mother, but I think I got my need to contemplate the essence of Life’s deepest issues from my father. And, I’m sorry, but this part of my story is not a happy one. Although I think my father was born with an orientation towards service and honor, I believe his character was forged in a darker fire.

My parents at my graduation from UNC – Chapel Hill

There was a sadness about my father. Did you feel it? Depending on how much time you spent with him or how much he let his guard slip, you might or might not have sensed it. He never intentionally let it show. In fact, in my whole life, I only saw him cry twice – once while reading me a story about a prisoner of war in Vietnam and once when a friend of mine asked me to lie for him in court.

The first was understandable. Although my father didn’t talk much about Vietnam, we all knew it had been tough on everyone who served there. But that was the first time I’d seen my father cry and it shocked me to my core. This bastion of strength and control was sobbing in front of me, unable to finish the story from Reader’s Digest. I can still picture him as if it were yesterday, bent over in his armchair by the fire, covering his eyes in one hand, trying not to let me see him cry. He only gave voice to his pain with two words – “the bastards”. [Apologies, Pastor Andy. Kids, don’t use that word.]

At the time, I thought he meant the Vietcong. They were the enemy, right?  Looking back, I’m not so sure. There was one other story he told me once that I think is at the heart of my father’s sadness. As I said, my father didn’t talk about Vietnam much, but there was one story he told me that stood out. When my father was in the Army, he was airborne infantry, assigned as the battalion’s military intelligence officer (S2), and promoted to Captain.

For those who aren’t veterans, as the battalion’s military intelligence officer, you report directly to the Colonel (or sometimes, General), you don’t lead any troops, and your entire job is to focus on the enemy. None of the other officers have this singular focus – they have to worry about feeding, sheltering, and training their troops. The S2 has access to a wide array of intelligence infrastructure and helps the Battalion leader plan their attacks.

My father (top) in a foxhole

So it must have been quite a coup for my father when he discovered intel that a North Vietnamese 5-star general was going to be visiting a certain village not far from where his battalion was stationed. I can imagine my father entering the command center, fired up, showing the Colonel on the map where the enemy would be, and telling him they had to authorize a platoon to go behind enemy lines and capture him. What a wealth of information that General could be! What a loss to the enemy. It could turn the tide of the war, at least in their part of the jungle.

I don’t know how hard it was to convince the Colonel, but my father got his authorization. A platoon with helicopters was assigned to him. He planned out the mission: how they would fly behind enemy lines, avoid being spotted, approach the village low to mask the sound of the helicopter blades, where to land, which building the general would be in, where his guards would be stationed, how they would take them out, how much time they had to capture the general before reinforcements would arrive, and how they would get back to base.

His mission plan was approved and the battalion carried out his orders. It was a bold move. No one had ever captured a 5-star general before. But my father was bold, wasn’t he? When he committed to something, there was no second guessing, no backing down. Right or wrong, Tim Peary was going forward.

My father as a young lieutenant.

I can imagine him on that day, pacing the command center. He wouldn’t be allowed to go of course. If things went wrong, they couldn’t risk his capture. That would be as good as giving the enemy all their plans. So, he had to wait – listening to the reports as they came in, answering any questions the Colonel had, and praying God gave them victory that day.

For my father was devoutly religious, as you know. His parents weren’t very religious, but my father chose the Episcopalian church rather early on [sorry again, Pastor Andy, but he eventually came around in the end, right?]. He said the formal, Episcopalian prayers gave his soul the structure it needed to express his feelings freely. A structure that set him free. That always stuck with me. Another thing you might not know about my father was that he devoutly required our family to spend almost an hour every night reading the lessons and saying the Lord’s prayer and a good chunk of the evening Compline from the Book of Common Prayer, like the Song of Simeon. My father would read the Old Testament, my mother would read the Psalms, and I would read the New Testament. Every night. I think this was part of my father’s heart compass. It was his evening realignment to what was right. But back to Vietnam.

I can imagine my father listening to shouted updates over the radio, perhaps even gunfire. I can imagine him biting his nails. I can imagine him demanding information from the radio operator.

Then, the report came back in – they had captured the General!  He must have been overjoyed. Validation – his plan had worked. All that effort and planning had finally paid off. What a difference this could make in the war. His Colonel probably slapped him on the back and invited him to dinner that night at the Officers’ Club.

My father in airborne training.

What did it feel like to see the helicopters land back at base and face the man you were responsible for capturing? A North Vietnamese 5-star General. First one ever. Had they just taken the head off the enemy forces? Would he be the one to interrogate him? Could they pull enough intel out of this man to dismantle their operations?

I don’t know but there must have been one heck of a celebration at the base that night. They probably bought him more rounds of drinks than he knew what to do with. Slaps on the back, questions about how he did it, talks of promotion. I hope he enjoyed it. It might have been the greatest night of his life.

And word travelled fast. The very next day, the Pentagon called. From Washington, D.C. all the way to the jungles of Vietnam. Captain Peary was summoned to the Command center. What in the world could the Pentagon want? Were they calling to congratulate him? Promote him? Question him? It must have been the second most nerve wracking moment of his life. I hope he wasn’t too hungover.

I’m guessing his battalion commander, the Colonel, delivered the news. The Pentagon was ordering them to release the General. From somewhere up above, a deal had been struck. They were to return the General to his village. No explanation. No details. Just do it.

This was the dark fire that consumed my father’s dreams. This was the sadness in his heart. My father had dedicated his life to serving his country and fighting for what was right. His greatest achievement, his greatest moment of service, had been ripped away from him without a whisper of why. I can’t imagine the pain, the sense of betrayal. He had been 100% loyal, had laid down his life, the lives of his brothers, and for what?

My father in his cavalry uniform

Worse, it shook the foundation of what he knew to be right about this world. He had built his life around the belief that he could serve no higher purpose than defending his country, of fighting the enemies of his people, of laying down his life for others. If they weren’t fighting for what was right, what was he doing?

I’m sure his brothers in arms tried to console him. They probably bought him even more drinks the second night. I know they offered him a promotion. The paperwork had already been submitted to raise him to Major, but my father’s heart was no longer in it. What was the point? How could he make plans to risk his brothers’ lives when any hill they captured might be given right back?

So my father turned down the promotion, finished his tour, resigned his commission, and was honorably discharged. What was he fighting for now? What cause was as honorable as serving his country?

My parents getting married.

I don’t think he ever found out. He and my mother moved here, he found a way of combining his love for riding horses with meeting new people and exploring the beautiful countryside by selling real estate, but he was always looking for a cause to fight for, something honorable, that next right thing.

One last story. The second time I saw my father cry was when a friend of mine in college asked me to lie for him in court. Being young and dumb, I was kind of on the fence about it. My friend could serve some jail time for a mistake that seemed mostly harmless to me and I was considering supporting him. But I knew enough to ask my father. My father always knew what was right. Even if I didn’t agree with him or if he wasn’t the most tactful person about how he expressed himself, his heart was always aimed in the right direction.

I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, but I must have argued with him. I had always been able to out-talk my father – I could outsmart him but I couldn’t out-wise him. Wherever we verbally ended the argument, I remember I was standing in the hall at the front door, door open as though I was about to leave, when my father began to cry. Again, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Seeing this man of strength and certainty cry. And again, he only gave voice to his pain with two words – “Please don’t.” It stopped me in my tracks.

I didn’t know what to do. There was something deeper here than I understood. But it shook me to my core. I think I just stammered, “OK”. We stood there frozen – door open. I wanted to comfort him but it wasn’t the time for a hug. He didn’t need a hug – he was trying to protect me. I just waited until he could express what he was trying to tell me.

He finally said, through his tears, “Please don’t perjure your soul.” And then he hugged me.

There it was. There was the truth. The compass. Even when you can’t rely on men or your leaders or even your country, you have to hold true to what is right by your soul. If you perjure your soul, you are truly lost. You won’t even be able to rely on yourself.

And so, Father, as you know, you won your final battle. I didn’t perjure myself. my friend went to jail for six months. But we are still friends, in a distant kind of way, and he cleaned himself up, which was another victory for you, Father.

But greatest of all, you taught my heart to seek the right thing.  You saved my soul that day.  You taught me every night during evening prayers.  You helped me seek it in college, studying philosophy.  What is the right thing to do?  For whom?  Why is it right?  You taught me to never give up.  I’m still seeking.  And you taught me “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” (Psalm 146:3)

As a way of concluding, I would like to point out that we have printed on the back of your bulletins the only poem my father ever asked me to memorize. I think the poem encapsulates who my father was, his honor, his love for his country, his service, his love for horses, and a hint of the betrayal he felt.  And then I’d like to close with a prayer my father taught me to recite every night. 

The Charge of the Light Brigade

My father in parade in New Jersey


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

My father’s graduation from the Citadel

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

And now for the prayer, the Song of Simeon.  I always thought it was odd that my father asked us to recite this slightly sad prayer every night.  It felt like we were preparing ourselves every night for the possibility of death.  But perhaps that was right.  Perhaps my father was always ready to go.  And so, now, I think he was ready and is now at peace. 

This is my way of saying goodbye.

Lord, you now have set your servant free,
to go in peace as you have promised
for these eyes of mine have seen the savior
whom you have prepared for all the world to see
A light to enlighten the nations
and the glory of your people, Israel.
Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

My father and I

I love you, Father.

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