My Grandpa died three and a half years ago, one month short of his 90th birthday. He was a WWII veteran who was in the second wave of the invasion of Normandy. He was proud to have taken part in the liberation of France. He was there for just about six weeks before he was shot in the heart. His chest was filled with pieces of metal and one missed his coronary artery by a fraction of an inch. Medics pumped him full of sulfa-based antibiotics on the battlefield & shipped him out. The damage caused by his allergic reaction to sulfa & to the devastating wounds, kept him in the hospital for a year. He ran into his younger brother--also seriously wounded-- in the hospital; he didn't know his brother had joined the army. When I was a little girl, I would rub his back and feel the bumps of the metal under his skin. Periodically, they would swell up, pop like a pimple, and bullet fragments would pop out. My Grandma kept them in a jar.
My Grandpa returned home, met my Grandma, and got married when he was 35. His unit was called up to go to Korea and he told my Grandma, who had just had her first child, that he would not make it back alive. They shipped out but were inexplicably called back home. He remained convinced that he would have been killed in Korea.
My Grandparents had three boys--my dad was the middle child. My Grandpa retired from the army as a Captain (I believe) after he escaped deployment in Korea. He went on to a career in the U.S. Forest Service.
I was the first grandchild and I was my Grandpa's girl. I followed him where ever he went and was always welcome. He had this awful low-rider truck with faux wood panelling. The floor mat had a picture of some kind of dragon & we called the truck The Monster. He took me to the park every day. His neighbors owned a pool and he taught me how to swim. He was proud of everything I did. He didn't go to church when I was a kid and I would always pretend to be sick on Wednesday nights (for the mid-week service) so I could stay home with him and watch Sha-na-na and Wonder Woman. I missed him desperately when my family moved from Texas to Ohio.
But he wasn't easy to have as a father. He drank a lot. He cursed and was angry a lot. He watched a lot of tv and expected his boys to be tough men. He had vivid nightmares which caused him to try to strangle my Grandma as she slept. He got drunk and told his sons awful stories about the war. He told the story of walking around a corner and seeing a teenage boy pointing a gun at him. He shot the boy & cried when he told the story. He was practically a teenager himself. He told the story of capturing two German soldiers and sending three of his men to take them to the base. His men never returned and they never showed up at the base. He said they never took another prisoner.
And this was the noble war, the just war.
He quit his three pack a day smoking habit when he was in his early fifties and was hospitalized yet again for pneumonia. His doctor walked in, saw him smoking in his hospital bed, and told my Grandpa that he wasn't his doctor anymore. My Grandpa never smoked again. He stopped drinking heavily, though we had a family drive every Saturday across the bridge, to the next country, that wasn't dry, to stock up on liquor and beer. My little brother got sips of Michelob Light every night after dinner, though I didn't because I was a "little lady."
He was fiercely committed to privacy and independence--when I was in college he got into my glove box to read the manual of the new car they helped me buy. I had hidden a pack of cigarrettes in there, but he never said anything. He believed that "as long as we aren't taking care of the children we've got, we shouldn't be forcing any woman to have a child."
I have never met a person who changed so profoundly over the course of their life and who so readily confessed their shortcomings. My Grandpa was nervous when I was born because I was a girl and he didn't know how to take care of me. My cousin lost his hearing due to meningitis when he was a toddler. My Grandpa didn't know how to act around people with disabilities. My Grandpa got up and left an army dinner because a black man brought a white woman. He grew and changed though--with purpose and intent in way I have never seen anyone else do. He loved me and, more importantly, respected and admired me. He was proud of my degrees and proud of my independence. He loved my cousin and was more proud of him than I knew another person could be. And when my brother got engaged to his Mexican girlfriend, my Grandpa told the story of leaving the dinner and said, "I was wrong. I know now that it only matters that you love one another and are good to one another." If he'd had time, I'm pretty sure he would have said the same thing to my cousin and her girlfriend.
My family lived in Greece for a year and my Grandparents came to visit for a month. We were staying in Nafplio and went to the ruins at Tiryns for the day. We were hiking up the ruins, my brother and I were running around, my Grandparents came up much more slowly. When we got to the top, there was a large flat place in the rock. My Grandpa and I were walking and another couple crested the ruins from the other side. The other couple was speaking German and the man--about the same age as my Grandpa--walked with a cane. It was almost slow-motion at the time. Everything stopped around us. The two men came within ten feet of each other and just looked. Then they nodded their heads in a solemn greeting and passed each other. My Grandpa took my hand and we kept walking.
When my Grandpa died, there were full military honors at his funeral. The veterans who performed that part of the service were so old. The firing of the gun was so loud. My Grandma has the flag on her shelf with pictures of my Grandpa. We never found his medals though we looked.
I think though that what he was not most proud of his service. He was proud of his three sons and their wives and his six grandchildren and his marriage of over fifty years.
I know this is long, but I just wanted to remember him out loud this weekend. I want to remember what he did and what it cost him.
Please use this to remember the veterans you love, if you like.