Although I never got him to talk about it, I’m sure my grandfather never wanted to go to war.
The year he was born, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I. In the United States, the 18th Amendment took effect, beginning America’s experiment with Prohibition. Both of these events and their consequences would play a role in my grandfather’s life. The Treaty of Versailles ensured a future conflict with Germany. That war, and the substance that led to the 18th Amendment and its repeal, would lead to a struggle of a very different kind in the life of a man I would someday call ‘Grampy.’
In 1941, my grandfather was a musician who was wooing the woman I would someday call “Grammy.” He was the “quiet man of music” perfectly described in Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band.” Unfortunately, I do not know how he got my grandmother to marry him or any details of their courtship. All I know is that on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. At the end of that month, the young couple that I would come to know as my grandparents got married, and my grandfather was sent to fight in a war that he would survive, but never really talk about. After the war, he returned to the US and fathered one of my uncles, my aunt, and the man who would become my father. The Baby Boom generation was born of a nationwide collective desire to overcome the death and destruction of World War II. Those who saw friends fall in battle seemed compelled to create new life as a way of dealing with the horrors they endured. Although they had won a war, world conflict did not end. My grandfather’s youngest son, my father, would go on to serve his country in the Navy during America’s long Cold War against the Soviet Union.
When I was a child, I knew my grandfather had served in WWII. What I didn’t know was what he did in that war. The only stories he was willing to tell were those he found either funny or unassuming. I learned that during the war, my grandfather served as an artillery spotter. One day, in that role, he was looking at an intersection and watching the German army move through it. On that day, he told the artillery to fire for effect. They did, and the shots hit right on target. At this point in the story, he would chuckle and say that he and his fellow solider radioed the artillery to keep on doing what they were doing.
Not all of his stories were as light.
On December 16, 1944, the German army launched an attack that led to what would eventually be known as the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather was there. The only thing he ever said about the German offensive was that at one point, “things got a little busy for awhile.” To this day, I do not know whether my grandfather killed other men in battle, but given his reluctance to talk about it, I suspect he did. I never asked him about it, but if I had, I doubt he would have answered my questions.
My grandfather survived the war, returned to the United States and grew his family. He also, unfortunately, grew dependent on the bottle. I don’t know whether his WWII experiences led him to that battle, or whether it preceded the war, but I do know his struggles with alcoholism lasted decades. Ultimately, though, he won that war. His victory allowed him to connect with the children of his children. My memories of him are of a gentle man with a strong hug who liked ice cream with peanut butter and watching the lake on his camp in northern Maine, listening to the loons cry and enjoying the peace and quiet. As a child, I used to enjoy just sitting with him in silence while at the same time wondering why he stared at the water so long. Now, I understand, and wish I had been able to really talk about what he was thinking as he looked at the water. Was he seeking peace? Redemption? Forgiveness?
I will never know.
In February of 1994, my grandfather died. I was 21 years old. Even though I have good memories of him and the many times we spent together, I still feel as though I never really knew him, and I regret to this day not taking the time to talk to him in detail about the years he spent serving his country during the largest conflict in which our country has ever been engaged.
All I know is that I miss him.
This Memorial Day weekend, I urge all of you who have relatives that served in World War II, or Korea, or Vietnam to talk to your loved ones about their experiences in those wars. Learn how they served their country, and thank them for that service. After all, they have earned the opportunity to tell their stories. Make Memorial Day truly meaningful by taking time to listen to those who fought to preserve your freedom.
You will not regret it.
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