HAROLD HAMILL: Marine Corps shaped his life

Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember those who died in the service of the United States. My dad died a year ago today, on a Saturday, so it was not Memorial Day. But the first anniversary of his death falls on Memorial Day.

My dad served in the Marine Corps from 1945 to 1949. At one time, I would have said that he was formerly a Marine. Then I heard "Once a Marine always a Marine." I didn't understand that. I now do, and I believe that my dad was a Marine valuing that service till the day he died.

The "Once a Marine" saying comes from a unique perspective that the Marines have of their service. They say you don't join the Marines, you become a Marine.

"Becoming" means there is a cultural aspect of being a Marine ? a shared system of values that sets them apart from those not in that culture.

My sister and I were raised with the values of the Marine Corps. I didn't know that at the time and only came to understand it within the past few years.

My dad had a much tougher life than I have had. His mother died when he was 8. He was the youngest of 10 children. He had a Michigan farm driver's license at age 12 and learned, by necessity, to fix any piece of equipment.

On occasion, he was allowed to head across the lake to Chicago. I don't think he ever had anything else resembling a vacation. He wanted to be something more than what he was, and he believed the Marine Corps would make him something more.

He was a tough person to please. He was more likely to criticize than to praise. But in all my years, to the day he died, he never said one bad word about the Marine Corps. And he spoke of them often.

I always found that interesting. Why other institutions and people didn't always meet his often exacting standards, but with this one organization he could find no fault.

Late in his life, I learned much more about his upbringing, and I understood how his life was changed by the Marine Corps and, by who he became, how my life was also shaped by the values of the Marine Corps.

The Marine Corps defines its values as honor, courage and commitment. Honor is personal integrity, being accountable for your actions and holding others accountable for theirs. Courage is doing what is right regardless of the conduct of others. Commitment is a dedication to excellence and a refusal to ever willingly accept being second-best.

I pulled those descriptions from a website. I could have written them myself as part of my dad's obituary. That revelation made me understand "Once a Marine, always a Marine." I believe he was hard to please because he held me to Marine standards.

But I learned to not be afraid of things. I learned that the son of an electrician could compete with the son of anyone else because stature in life didn't matter ? character and commitment did.

I believe that my dad was tough on me, because he thought I could handle it, and, if not, he wanted to make sure I learned to handle it.

With others he could be different. A commercial for the Marines had a Marine saying, "We fight for those who can't fight for themselves."

My sister and I both recall stopping every time someone was stranded by the road. My dad could fix any car, and he never passed one by. The last years of his life were spent caring for my mother. We both found this ironic, as he was not the "motherly" type. In these situations, he fought for those who could not fight for themselves.

None of us escape our past. Often I resented being held to exacting standards of honor, courage and commitment, probably because I usually failed.

Any success I now have comes from those values; from being raised by someone who was a Marine to the day he died ? someone who believed in the words Semper Fi. Memorial Day is now personal for me.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. James R. Hamill writes the "Your Taxes" column for for the Journal's Business Outlook. Hamill, director of Tax Practice at Reynolds, Hix & Co. in Albuquerque, can be reached at jimhamill@rhcocpa.com.