On this Veterans Day, I remember the soldiers in my family that came before me. They all fought in WWII. The war took a different toll from each of them.
My mother’s father. He was a corpsman, a medic. I hardly knew him. He came back from the war, addicted to morphine and alcohol. I don’t know what he saw on those hospital beds or in those trenches. I don’t know what his life was like before the war, except for some photos of him sitting on a sunny porch holding my infant mother in his arms. When he came back home from the war, he was the town drunk in a small midwestern city outside Chicago. He began to beat my grandmother and she left him to raise my mother and her sister without him. I met him a few times when I was a child. I cannot remember his face. He died when I was 9.
I visited his grave 20 years ago. It was summer. I cleaned the weeds from his marker and thought of what I might have to say, if he were still alive.
My mother’s stepfather. He was a paratrooper. On D-Day, he jumped into france with thousands of other men. He was captured by the Germans and placed into a camp. He escaped a couple of times and made a career out of the Army when he returned. He met my grandmother, they married in Hawaii and the two of them enjoyed the rewards of ‘the greatest generation’. They bought a house in Batavia, IL and built a bar in the basement. They had a pool table and swimming pool in the back yard. They smoked and drank and strung Japanese lanterns up on the patio out back. They were always having parties, it seemed. I thought that when I grew up that life would be sunny days, warm summer nights, cocktails, Frank Sinatra music and happy times. He never talked about the war, except when his friends from the war came to visit, and only after we went to bed. He was always so happy to see me and I remember bouncing on his knee, laughing and having a grand old time. I saw them every Christmas. He died when I was 10.
Years later, when I was in Jump School I looked for his photograph on the wall of a hangar on Ft. Benning. In my Special Forces training, I camped in the site of a ruined barracks area where his company had trained.
My father’s father. He was a Colonel in Patton’s artillery. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I bear his name, as did my father. He had a farm in Missouri and we would spend our summers there. He was not a particularly cheerful man or all that interested in children. He would give us chores to do and ask us to be quiet a lot. He loved watching westerns on TV. Movies and shows. Gunsmoke, Bonanza, High Chapparel or my favorite The Wild, Wild West. I feared him mostly, but he was still charming at times. He had a socializing streak that would compel him to load us kids into the car and drive around the country side to visit his friends. He had a cocktail on the dashboard, a cooler on the floor, smoking away while we sat on the tail of the station wagon with our feet hanging over the edge. I’m alive to tell this tale because, apparently he drove at like 5mph. The other adults couldn’t stand driving with him, but we kids loved it. He died on my birthday when I was 11.
I remember him now, through the items he brought back from the war. Some prints he bought in occupied Japan, a portrait he had of himself in his uniform and a luger taken from a dead SS officer.
I didn’t get to spend much time with them. Some summer months and Christmas days in my first decade of life. I don’t know who they were before the war or what it cost them. None of them lived very long and only one of them seemed to find peace after the war. They were children in the Depression and their adult lives were forever defined by the horrors and sacrifices of WWII. I can’t thank them enough. I can’t thank them at all. My life is an easy one compared to theirs and that ease is something that they gave to me when they sacrificed so much on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
So, I don’t get to share my wife and daughter with them or the other good things of my life. They exist in my memory and their lives are a mystery to me. I won’t ever know them, but sometimes on Christmas or a summer day with my daughter, I think that maybe I feel what they felt.