Excerpt: Rita Cosby's 'Quiet Hero'

It was a hot day, and the midday sun was beating down on us. He came back to the campsite breathing hard and drenched with sweat, and pulled off his white T-shirt. As he peeled off the wet shirt, my eyes locked on the large scar on his right shoulder: a messy, painful-looking hole surrounded by ragged, discolored marks. My eyes jumped to the various other parts of his body and its strangely punctured and puckered skin: a hole near his right wrist, a hole in his left forearm, a criss-cross of slashes up and down his legs. It was my sudden realization that my dad's skin was unlike other people's skin. It's a vivid snapshot, indelibly etched into my memory. I remember being immediately overcome by the feeling that there was something strange about it. It looked wrong. I wondered if someone had shot him in a fight or cut him with something, and the curiosity of an eight-year-old girl could not let it go.

That afternoon, when my father was out fishing with Alan, I finally broached the subject with my mom. She was sitting outside by the tent, soaking up the bright Maine sun. I walked over and, as nonchalantly as I could, asked, "Was Dad in a fight?" My mother suddenly looked up. She was agitated, noticeably uncomfortable, caught off guard by my bold question. She answered me simply, "Your dad went through some tough times when he was growing up." She then added with finality, "We don't talk about it." That was the end of the conversation.

And for thirty-five years I did not mention his scars again. But the subject had begun to bother me. After spending my career asking tough questions of the world's newsmakers, it felt odd being scared to ask my dad the most basic questions about his past. And with the memorabilia I'd unearthed from my mother's house, I had more questions than ever.

Determined to decipher his past and finally uncover his secrets, I packed a suitcase and boarded a train to Alexandria, Virginia, the town outside Washington, D.C., where he now lives with his wife, Judy, whom I've always liked, and their son, Eric, my kind and hardworking half-brother.

I made myself comfortable as the train headed south, surrounded by my initial arsenal of books on Poland and World War II history. The rhythmic click-clack of the train moving over the rails lulled me into personal reflection. While covering stories I've been threatened, detained, and even shot at, but I've never been injured. In fact, the only physical wound I've ever sustained is the scar that runs across my left knee. I quickly looked down at my knee, as I sometimes do, as if checking to see if my scar is still there.

Scars are interesting things. They seem to be with us for life, quiet statements of our experiences that don't go away. Sometimes they are badges of honor, but more often, they are tales of careless "shouldn't-haves." Every time I tell the story of how I got my one and only scar, I squirm a bit, remembering the pain. I also think of my father — of what he said and what he didn't say.

My own scar is the result of a "shouldn't-have." One morning, in eighth grade, in an effort to be stronger, I was practicing gymnastics on my bed, diligently doing handstands using the wall as a spot. Things were going well until I attempted a one-armed pushup. I toppled sideways, falling onto my nightstand and knocking over a glass container of lotion. The bottle fell and shattered into a minefield of jagged pieces, and my knee came down directly atop the largest of them.

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