I don’t get very personal here, but it’s Veterans’ Day and I want you to meet a very special person who’s very close to my heart: my Grandpa, Howard S., who served as a gunner aboard the USS Alabama during WWII.
His youth was marred by tragedy but he served his country proudly. While on leave he lost his first wife and parents in a horrific car accident caused by a drunk driver. He buried them and then returned to battle to fight for his country.
I have never in my entire life met anyone who demonstrated as much strength or reserve as my grandfather did. I saw him cry only once in his life, when my grandmother passed away. He almost fell to his knees at the cemetery and was escorted behind the cars by his oldest son who knew that Grandpa preferred to work out his emotions in private, away from the prying eyes of his twenty-some-odd grandchildren.
My firstborn was his first great-grandchild.
He passed away the day that I gave birth to my second child, his third great-grandchild, almost five years ago. As life left him I brought a new life into the world. He lived long enough to hear that it was a relatively easy birth and that we were all well. A few hours later he closed his eyes and left this world.
I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race,
I have kept the faith.
I’ve written before, elsewhere, how the dichotomy of his death and my son’s birth was a bit of a mindjob, this man who I revered as much as any child would revere a father. That I was unable to attend his funeral inflicted a small tear in the fabric of my soul that God is mending with time.
This morning I got a bit teary on air because I was sitting across the studio from a man who just sent his firstborn into battle; people were calling in, full of emotion, thanking our veterans, sharing stories of their loved ones. I take this day so very seriously because it should be taken as such. It takes a certain sort of individual to do what our veterans have done. I don’t care whether it was the draft or volunteerism that accounted for why a man or woman joined the ranks of America’s finest. I don’t think that things like that happen all willy-nilly for a reason anyway, I think that certain people were put in certain positions because they were the best, the strongest.
When the war was over my grandfather came home, met my grandmother, and raised a family. By the time I entered this world and met him he was a senior citizen, a man hard of hearing brought on my the massive artillery blasts of the guns he fired during the war, a life that seemed so far away from the life and Grandpa I knew. He wore his USS Alabama hat proudly. When I hit my teen years and thought myself immortal and beyond reproach, I asked Grandpa why he fought, anyway. He could’ve just run off.
“These things aren’t just given,” he said, raising his bushy eyebrows at me. “Freedom isn’t free.”
I learned about commitment, honor, and duty from this man.
Years later, cancer would take him from us. He was ready to go. He raised his brood. He missed Grandma and he was blessed enough to have lived a long full life with people who loved him. My final communication with him was through my mother, as I laid in the labor and delivery room, recovering.
“Does he know?” I asked my mother through the phone. I dared not cry because I knew she was already dealing with enough.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice strained. “7 lbs, 8 ounces, healthy and feisty. He said ‘good.'”
When I hung up I sat in my room alone, as Chris was home with our firstborn, cradled my infant, and cried harder than I’ve ever cried in my life. Grandpa was such a blessing to our family and he’s home now.
I’ve such wonderful stories about him to tell the boys. Like the time he was in the VA following a lung operation, and the doctors took my mother and her siblings aside and said: “Look, we have no idea how this happened, but, um, your father was exposed, at some point, to a vast amount of radiation.”
They were all stunned.
“Oh, that’s from the bomb,” Grandpa piped up, thanks to his often selective hard-of-hearing. We’re not sure how, but he was at a vantage point, somewhere in the Pacific, to see one of the atomic bomb explosions. He described it in fascinating detail. He went on further and talked about how when the USS Missouri was freshly commissioned, it was chosen to be the ship on which the US signed the peace accord with Japan. All the Missouri sailors on the ships in vicinity were furious and on the Alabama they talked of shooting the new girl down.
They instead were invited to board the Missouri and be present at the historic signing.
When Grandpa finished telling this story nearly everyone who was able in the ICU ward was around his bed, jaws to the floor, his family included. It was the first time we all had heard this; he was very quiet about his service. I know some people would put this stuff on a belt buckle and wear it out and about, not Grandpa. He took it literally, what the Bible said about service: never let the left hand know what the right is doing. He kept that Bible on his coffee table. He had no need of banks; he kept his money in Genesis.
His body now rests on a hill in southern Missouri, in rich Ozark soil. He left behind an amazing legacy of service, both to this country and to our family.
For him and to all veterans, thank you.