My Dad, Richard
Seltzer, Sr., died on Saturday, June 14, Flag Day. He was
91. He was a retired Colonel in the Army Reserves, and
married the day before D-Day.
This memoir briefly traces his unique
life path, and might be of interest to strangers as well
as friends and family.
Richard Seltzer, Jr.
THE BUGLE BOY
me this bugle about twenty years ago. I believe
it once belonged to his Uncle Adolph, from World War I. and that Dad
played around with it and other army gear of Uncle Adolph’s
at the family summer house in Colonial Beach, Virginia.
important to Dad. He and his three brothers each
learned an instrument and played regularly together with
their Mom and Dad in the family living room. Dad
learned the violin with formal lessons, then taught himself
the saxophone and the piano. He used a chord system
for the piano and played pop tunes and hymns with confidence
and gusto, for sing-a-longs. He played the saxophone
for bands, sometimes for the fun of it, sometimes to earn
some extra money. And he played the violin in
community orchestras, right up until his stroke at age 86.
stroke, he couldn’t talk, but he could sing — a left-brain,
right-brain thing. So you could say that music became
even more important to him.
the bugle was probably the most important instrument in his
1944, Dad was a private in the US Army, stationed in Georgia
— a bugle boy waiting to be shipped to the war in Europe.
day before he was due to leave, he received orders for Officer
out that his company was sent to the Battle of the
Bulge. He heard that they were all captured, without
casualties, and that the train taking them to prison camp
was bombed by the Allies, and then there was only one
casualty — the bugle boy, the man who replaced him, died.
and Bulge — one an anagram of the other, the same letters,
arranged slightly differently.
see it as chance. But to Dad, he owed his life that to
other bugle boy. He had an obligation to pay it back, to
live a life that mattered.
was given a life and also given a belief that he had a
every decision point in his life, in the back of his head
was the image of that bugle boy who had taken his place, a
humbling sense of responsibility, a debt owed.
of the final scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, at
Arlington National Cemetery, long after World War
II. The man who was saved is standing with his
children and his grandchildren. Not a word is
said. But you get the sense that the man’s whole life
was predicated on that sacrifice and that debt.
before his stroke, when Dad was sorting out what he wanted
to happen when he died, he said he wanted his ashes to lie
at Arlington National Cemetery.
1944, the Army sent Dad to the University of Pennsylvania to
learn German. While he was there, in Philadelphia, he
met and married my mother. The war in Europe ended
exactly nine months before my birth.
Army sent him to Camp Campbell in Kentucky to learn
Japanese. He was supposed to be air dropped behind
enemy lines in the early stages of the invasion of
Japan. Fortunately, that war too ended before he was
shipped, and I was born in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee.
stage of his life, Dad dreamed of a career in acting.
So as soon as he was discharged, he took his wife and infant
son to California, where he had been accepted at the UCLA
theater program. But he couldn’t find housing, Mom
missed friends and family, and something didn’t feel
right. He needed to take his life in a different
direction. He had a different destiny.
back East, and went to the University of Maryland, preparing
for a career in education. Money was tight. At one
point, while he was going to school, we lived in a log cabin
with a wood stove.
graduated, he got a job teaching in a junior high school in
Philadelphia. At the same time, he worked on a
master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and to
make ends meet, he drove a cab and sold his blood once a
month. (He was AB negative, which is rare.)
moved to Rockville, Maryland, and Dad studied for a
doctorate in education while working as a high school school
administrator, as an intern, at half pay.
of Instruction at Plymouth State College in Plymouth, NH,
before that became part of UNH. Then he had a series
of jobs as superintendent of schools in three communities in
the Philadelphia area.
it all, he stayed in the US Army Reserves, rising to the
rank of full colonel. He was always proud of his country and
his service in the Army. He was more proud of that
rank of colonel than of his position as superintendent of
schools. And yes, he wanted his ashes to lie in
Arlington National Cemetery.
retired, at age 55, he returned to acting — getting bit
roles in movies like “Trading Places” and “Signs,” and in TV
shows like “Law and Order,” and appearing in TV commercials
and print ads, and playing in live stage plays, as well.
years ago, Dad and Mom moved to Boston to be close to my
sister and me. Here he continued his acting, became an
active member of a Lutheran church and of an association of
retired Army officers. He played the violin in two
community orchestras and dabbled in oil painting, right up
until his stroke.
his acting roles, the one he was most proud of was Teddy in
“Arsenic and Old Lace”, back in Philadelphia, at the same
time he was teaching junior high, earning a master’s degree,
driving a cab, and selling his blood. As the
delusional character who thought he was Teddy Roosevelt, he
ran up and down the stairs blowing a bugle.
story of Dad’s life as I know it.
an unexpected twist at the end.
his stroke, Dad found over the Internet a group of veterans
from World War II, from his old company that got shipped to
the Battle of the Bulge. He learned that the
bugle boy didn’t die, and he got in touch with him by email
and shared life experiences.
last year, the officer who took command of that company soon
after Dad left for OCS and before the Bulge chanced upon
Dad’s autobiography on the Internet and sent him a detailed
account of what had actually happened in the battle.
In fact, more than half the men in the company died in the
there is the story that gave Dad a sense of debt and
destiny; and there are the facts, which are very different.
story Dad believed for so long mattered more than the facts,
giving shape and meaning to his life. And having a life that
has meaning to yourself and that might inspire others is a
wish I had learned how to play the bugle myself. If I
had, in remembrance of him, I would want to play “The Boogie
Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” and then, very solemnly,