The details are murky. Your unit – the 8th – isn’t featured heavily in much written history. You rarely talked about your experiences. No one knew you’d won a Bronze Star for bravery until after you died. We know you were in the Hürtgen Forest and that it was horrible. When you and your brothers emerged from that frozen horror, the Germans were waiting. There was no way in hell you were retreating back into that wasteland, so you charged. The Germans did not expect such resolve and you lived to fight another day.
You’d actually enlisted in the Army during the Great Depression. Work was scarce and the Army offered food, clothing, and shelter. You ended up in Ireland training the conscripted in the early days of World War II, before the fighting was really fierce. At your favorite pub, the native regulars would chide you for our surname, “The scourge of ******** is upon us again!” You never lost your taste for Guinness even though it was hard to come by in rural America in pre-globalized days.
The Bronze Star was awarded for a volunteer mission in which you and another soldier crawled ahead of the American lines and called in air and artillery strikes against German positions. You gave your medal away to a buddy who never received his. That’s pretty much all we know about your military service.
Post partum depression had claimed your mother before you knew her. At that time, fathers didn’t raise kids by themselves and you went to live with our namesake’s best friends. They loved you and made you part of the family, but it wasn’t your family. When you got home from Europe, you were eager to start the big family you never had. Rumor is you were sweet on the lady who became great aunt, but she was already engaged. Granny, being a woman and in competition with her sister, saw her opening and announced you two were engaged. Times were different, you didn’t fight, and the two of you got married and started having kids. Dad, the third of us, was first to arrive. In time, your first grandchild, me, came along.
I didn’t know you as a war hero. I knew you as an excessive sponsor of Jump Rope for Life, an oiler of skateboard bearings, a teacher of three-wheeler techniques. To me you were just a grandfather, though the word ‘just’ doesn’t do you justice. You didn’t back out when the grand total for Jump Rope for Life hit well above what you were planning. You didn’t let your absolute ignorance of skateboards prevent you from helping keep my Mark Gonzales in shape. When you whacked me in the back of the head after I drove my 3-wheeler, with you sitting on the seat behind me, over the fallen tree with too much gusto, I knew you weren’t angry, just making a point.
When I was in the 4th grade and you suffered the stroke, I crumbled.
How could you be reduced to grunts and strained gestures? Why could you only feebly spin one of my wheels, with your one partially useful hand, instead of helping me tune the trucks? Why couldn’t you whack me in the head when I did something stupid? How could anything topple the staid man I knew and leave him bedridden and broken?
It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned that you sneaked into the kitchen after everyone else was in bed, every night, and took a long slug off the bottle of whiskey so you could sleep. It wasn’t until later that I found out that no one could ever wake you up after you had gotten to sleep lest they wanted to get slugged. You always came up swinging. I never understood the agitation you apparently suffered the night before you died, as you frantically tried to tell Granny something, most likely that you loved her, until I was married and had fathered my own kids. It wasn’t until recently that I understood that you helped put me on the path to having my own kids. I don’t think anyone else, family included, has ever understood why I balked at going to your funeral, only relenting and getting in the car at the absolute last minute.
Honestly, I still have mixed feelings about that decision.
The guests packed the chapel. The mechanics and other co-workers using their lunch breaks to send you off. The extended family. The rows of friends. None of us wanted to be there. Not for that reason.
I made the mistake of joining the line that went past your casket. After seeing the hull of what used to be you, what was being passed off as you, I vowed to never walk past a casket again. I never have. Those hulls do a disservice to the memory of the people who are are being honored. Made-up and lifeless.
You were never lifeless.
Though I wish you’d lived longer and told us more of your story, I’m forever grateful that I got to know you for as long as I did. I’m grateful for your sacrifices. Because of you and your brothers, I know freedom and I know peace. Because of you, I know how to tune a skateboard and navigate a log with a 3-wheeler. Because of you, I know how to be a man.
Today, I shall lift a glass of Guinness to you, Gramps. Thanks for everything, big and little.
Previously published on Hidden Leaves. Photo used with permission by the author.