Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ruining a good sheep

Confession time: For most of my life, I've thought Veteran's Day was just a nice excuse to have a day off from school or work. I was aware that people had fought wars and that I should be thankful to them, but it didn't really sink in. I had even had members of my family serve in both the Army and the Navy, but once again--just a convenient federal holiday.

Then, last fall, I watched the fabulous Ken Burns documentary, "The War". All ten hours of it, DVR-ed off of PBS and enjoyed fully. World War II hit me then; I finally got the total enormity of it, and what people sacrificed. I realized that I couldn't let my grandfather not tell me about his time in the Navy because World War II veterans were dying all the time, and you never know what's going to happen in this world.

So when I visited my grandparents last time, way back in January, I made my grandfather sit down and try to remember as much about his time as possible. Here's what I recall, which is why Veteran's Day is now special to me, since it's about my grandfather--my mother, who reads this blog, doubtless knows a more complete history and will not hesitate to correct me in private, but as she's asleep right now, this is what I've got.

My Grandpa Danny is eighty-six years old. He joined the Navy during World War II, and was a radio operator. He was on a number of different ships, including a commercial vessel off the coast of Italy. He was the night radio operator on the ship, and at one point they got bombed by the Germans. During his time with the Navy, they tried to briefly train him to be a Navy SEAL (it did not work out), sent him to school at the University of Chicago to hone his radio operator skills, and he sailed in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific.

Towards the end of the war, he was stationed on the island of Tinian itself, working as a radio operator communicating with ships across the Pacific. His most potent memory of the island is that the food was shipped in from Australia and they served mutton in the mess hall, which he couldn't stand. I'm not sure how you could ruin a good sheep, personally, but apparently the US Navy managed to do so. For years, my grandfather refused to eat lamb chops, until he was ill one day and my grandmother fed them to him, without telling him what he was eating. When he mentioned that he liked them, she told him that they were lamb chops, and to his utter surprise, he's been a sheep fan ever since.

More importantly, I think are the things that my grandfather doesn't talk about. The things that he must have seen, the battles fought, the friends lost, the people who never came back. The reasons why his hair literally went from being blond and curly when he joined the Navy, to being brown and straight by the end of the war.

We forget so often, nowadays, quite how bad World War II was; it seems like a distant memory, sixty-three years in the past, with its soldiers and sailors and pilots dying off everyday. We fight newer wars now, with better technology, but with deaths just the same. There are still people who never make it back and if you get off the battlefield alive, you're one of the lucky ones.

For everyone who is a veteran or knows a veteran, thank you.

May there be peace in our future and no more wars for you to fight.


Justus M. Bowman said...

"May there be peace in our future and no more wars for you to fight."

Nice quote.

I'll admit that while I'm against most wars, it is hard for me to blame the U.S. for its involvement in WWII. When I think about that war, it seemed inevitable that America would step in and help oust Hitler from his throne (imagined or not).

I'm glad you had a long talk with your grandfather. I need to do the same, but mine is a little antisocial.

D. Robert Pease said...

My grandfather never talked about the war. All I knew growing up was he was off to war for much of my mom's childhood. Then just a few weeks before he died back in 1994 he began to talk. Turns out he was on a ship just off the coast of France during D-Day. He wasn't the first wave to land, but he went in pretty close after that. Then he spent the rest of the war riding across Europe, freeing villages. He still didn't talk a lot about the details. Even then it was still too much I think, but my impression of him and the war were forever changed. There is an old picture of him sitting in a jeep in front of a windmill in the Netherlands. Anyone who doesn't think we we should have been in the war, just go ask those people in that village in Holland, and all across Europe who could very well be living a very different life now if it weren't for people like William Fredrick James Clark, my grandpa.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I once dated a Green Beret dude for a few months and he was really nice, intelligent and funny, but he was pretty messed up from his experience in Iraq. He never talked much about it and when he did, it was very bittersweet and uncomfortable (since I'm a Muslim) but I told him he was very brave for serving in the military, even though I disagreed with the war.

I am sad how many Nam and Iraq veterans are now homeless and suffer from PTSD.

BJ said...

So far, on Afghanistan, about 1000 foreign troops (including American, Canadian, and others) have died.

In Iraq, about 4500.

In WWII, the Allied forces lost about 61 million soldiers. This doesn't include the millions of civilians killed. In WWI it was about 10 million.

Kind of puts things in perspective as to the size and extent of these wars, and why we should never let something like that happen again.

susiej said...

What a wonderful, thoughtful post! Thanks for making me stop and think about Veterans' Day. And Justus, keep trying with your grandfather. Antisocial may really just be lonely.

Beosig said...

I was raised by my grandparents. All of my grandfather's brothers that lived to adulthood (one didn't) joined the various branches of the military as soon as they had enough whiskers on their face to pass for the legal age of enlistment. One of my uncles was a mere 15 years old when he set foot on German soil during the liberation of Europe.

I am quite blessed to know the stories of the time of WWII. I'm probably one of the few thirty-somethings that has this honor and privilege.

Thanks to all vets out there. My freedom comes at a price you volunteered to pay.

lotusloq said...

Thanks for your thought provoking tribute to your grandfather and veterans. I'm another one of those who didn't used to understand the significance of the holiday when I was younger.

I remember playing in the band at a veteran's day celebration and not getting it even when someone came up to me and started talking about one of my uncles who had died in WWII. At the time I didn't know the whole story. No one in my family would talk about it.

In the last few years my dad has finally started telling the stories. Not that he wants to, but I think he feels it's more important that the stories not be lost. I now know how that uncle died and many other stories that have brought a greater appreciation for this holiday.

Elissa M said...

My father enlisted in the Navy in WWII. He wanted to be a radio man. The Navy made him a Sea Bee instead. Because he was not a trained engineer (he was 17 when he enlisted!) he got to do all the "fun" stuff they didn't want to risk a real engineer on, like crawling through tunnels on Okinawa after Japanese soldiers.

He does talk about his experiences some. He joined the Army after the war, and fought in Korea and Vietnam. After seeing lots of news reports about "crazy" Vietnam vets, my younger brother once asked him, "Daddy, did Vietnam mess you up?"

My father said, "I've got to finish being messed up by World War Two and Korea before I can think about being messed up by Vietnam." My father is, I have to say, one of the least "messed up" people I've ever known- and he's got more excuses than most, not even counting his military service.

The aforementioned brother is a 20 year Navy vet and served in the Gulf War. We actually saw him on TV once.

My husband put 26+ years in the Army and served during the Gulf War as well as deploying to Bosnia and Iraq.

Veteran's Day is for honoring the living vets and Memorial Day is for remembering those who didn't make it home. If you have a chance, visit a vet in a veteran's home.

Freedom isn't free.

Art Parham said...

Jenny, Thanks for your sympathetic attitude about WWII vets. As soon as I can dig it up, I will send you a Query about a SF novel written by a friend of mine who jumped out of a B-17 over Germany and spent some time in a Stag-Luft POW camp.
... More Later
Art Parham