Bill Kaelin

Bill Kaelin: Bridging the divide

Recently my sisters and I planned my father’s 80th birthday celebration. It was quite the milestone and we really wanted to do something special.

My sister Cheryl, who is a self-proclaimed “Army Strong Mom,” came up with an idea to send our dad on an “Honor Flight” that lets veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam take a bus trip around DC to see all the memorials. It was the perfect gift, but there was a catch: someone had to be his guardian for the day. With an overwhelming majority vote, my five sisters elected me.

My dad’s and my relationship hasn’t always been easy, and I have to admit I was a bit anxious about the responsibility I was given, simply because this would be the longest time my Dad and I would spend alone together in my entire adult life.

What would we talk about? It’s not like my dad isn’t a man of many words. He has very strong opinions and has no problem voicing them, and he raised his son to be the exact same way. The challenge is our views couldn’t be more different on some of life’s most controversial topics, like politics, religion and all those other liberal vs. conservative hot-button issues that can ruin relationships.

There we were; the conservative, Fox News-watching, Air Force veteran and his liberal, anti-war, NPR-listening gay son, off to the most divisive place in America: Washington, DC. Little did I know that the city that usually breeds so much division would actually bring the two of us together like never before.

I learned a lot about my dad that day. I found out that he was in charge of security for the B-52 nuclear bombers during the Cold War, and I actually got to see one of the two-seater planes that he flew. During a hot debate about music with some Vietnam vets on the bus, I found out that “Cheek to Cheek” is one of my dad’s all-time favorite songs, but to my greater surprise, I realized that my father and I could be comfortable sitting in silence while we absorbed the many moving sights at the national memorial parks.

Seeing the number of men and women who lost their lives for all of us was breathtaking, and traveling with over 150 veterans to pay respects was humbling. I feared I would be trapped on a plane full of political posturing that would have forced me to bite my tongue out of respect for those who fought for my right to express myself. To my surprise, the words “Republican” and “Democrat” were never even uttered, and the only thing that mattered was that we were all Americans.

I have never been more proud of my dad, and it was such an honor to finally see him accept the gratitude from me and the numerous strangers who thanked him for his service that day. My father and I found our own personal freedom by finally relaxing in each other’s presence and enjoying each other’s company. I think we finally realized that we both are a part of that big, beautiful melting pot that makes America so great. We finally put our differences to rest out of respect to those who fought for both our rights to be our authentic selves. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Bill Kaelin is the owner of Bill Kaelin Marketing Events and Consulting Agency in Atlanta.