Monday, May 29, 2006

In memorium

I wrote and posted this in January and now post as a tribute to my late grandfather...

The following is a tribute to a true patriot…this is the ballad of a dead soldier.

When my grandfather was born on January 6, 1922, the coyotes were howling and the moon was full. Such was life in rural North Dakota. Born to dirt poor farmers he knew how rough life was in the upper Midwest. The winters were brutal and the work back breaking. This setting was the backdrop for grandpa’s formative years. It was a harsh environment that hardened the earth and oft times the heart.

My grandfather’s parents were decent people and raised five kids, four daughters and my grandpa. They were stern and uncompromising but North Dakota required such rigidity. The children were disciplined harshly and worked ceaselessly. Food as well as other essentials many long considered a birth right, were not easy to come by. There were times my grandpa had to go to his best friend’s house to eat. Times were tough but so were the people.

As a teen my grandfather joined FDR’s “Tree Army”, the now famous Civilian Conservation Corps. My grandmother once told me how grandpa took her up to the mountains to a monument outside Genesee, Colorado. His chest swelled with pride as he exclaimed, “I helped build this.” He was seventeen when he helped plant countless trees throughout the Colorado Rockies and he earned roughly $30 a month. All tolled the CCC would build 3,470 fire towers, 97,000 miles of fire road, and devote 4,235,000 man hours to fighting fires

His North Dakota National Guard unit was called up in February 1941 and shipped to Louisiana for training. In December of that year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and my grandfather was called to action. The 164th Infantry Regiment was part of the larger 34th Infantry Division that was dispatched to Melbourne, Australia in March of 1942. The 164th was initially sent to New Caledonia to protect naval bases and shipping from Japanese attack.

Then on October 13 they landed on Guadalcanal. During the first five days 117 men from the 164th were killed. The battle for Henderson Field saw 1,700 Japanese lose their lives while the 164th lost 26 dead and 57 wounded. The unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and was dubbed by the civilian press as “jungle fighters”. After the fight for Henderson field the 164th ceaselessly patrolled Guadalcanal through February, 1943 and fought numerous skirmishes with the Japanese. The 164th was eventually sent to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands where they remained until November of ’44. After all was said and done those that were part of the 164th saw 600 days of action, suffered over 1,400 casualties including 357 dead, and was the first Army unit to see offensive action in WWII. The men of the 164th would earn over 2,000 Purple Hearts, 199 Bronze Stars, 89 Silver Stars, and six Distinguished Service Crosses. My grandfather himself was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts.

I once interviewed my grandpa for a paper in junior high. I asked him what his proudest accomplishment was in WWII. I assumed he’d cite his medals or saving the life of one of his men but he answered very matter-of-factly, “making it out alive”. He then told me that the average life expectancy for an infantryman in the Pacific theatre was six months. My grandfather served for over a year and a half.

Later on when I was in high school I had the privilege of picking my grandpa’s head about WWII. As we talked tears welled up in his eyes as he told me how he saw his best friends killed before his very eyes, including the same kid who fed my grandpa on a number of different occasions. These were the best friends of his youth and it was then I realized that the war had left this rock of a man deeply scarred and it had stripped away his youth far too early.

My grandpa made the rank of sergeant at least three different times and was demoted every time for insubordination and striking a superior officer. Seems he would’ve rather suffered the indignity of losing a stripe than losing another man because some wet behind the ears lieutenant fresh out of college was spouting off orders from a military field manual. A dear family friend who we’ll call John told me once, through tear filled eyes, that he and many others in the 164th owed their lives to my grandpa. On patrols my grandfather would always take point, not out of bravado or hubris but out of a paternalistic protective instinct. After seeing many of his closest friends killed my grandpa became so withdrawn that some of the men in his unit referred to him as almost ghost like. Months of constant war fare took its toll on all.

After serving in the Pacific my grandpa was stationed at a rehab hospital for a bit to mend his bullet riddled left shoulder as well as his shattered psyche. Many of the boys he had grown up with never made it home and this haunted my grandfather.

In 1946 he met then married my grandmother. Together they had four children, my mother, two aunts, and the youngest, my uncle. They struggled to make ends meet in Bismarck, North Dakota so in the early 50’s they folded up their tent flaps and moved to Denver. Work and money were hard to come by so my grandfather worked odd jobs and eked out a meager living. Eventually he would find work as a construction foreman around Denver. When I was a kid he’d drive me around and point out the structures that he helped build. And it would surface again, that indomitable pride that my grandmother noticed in the mountains that day and that was unmistakable when he gloated over “his buildings”.

After toiling away in construction my grandpa found a job with the United States Postal Service. He worked primarily at the annex in downtown Denver, which he proudly proclaimed was the seventh busiest annex in the postal system.

He and my grandmother retired in 1986.

After their retirement they traveled a bit, once to Hawaii, Mexico, countless road trips to Montana where my granny’s sister & brother lived, and a number of other sojourns. Always the craftsman my grandpa settled in his garage, collected a vast array of power tools, and kept himself busy.

Then in 1990 the unthinkable happened. On July 3 one of his beloved grandchildren, yours truly, broke his neck in a car accident. That was the first time I ever saw the man cry was when he was bent over my hospital bed stroking my forehead trying to bring a little comfort to a scared nineteen year old. This impossibly stern and rugged man was reduced to tears and for that I will never forgive myself. After my accident he became increasingly more emotional and he would often cry at commercials on TV.

Once again his world was shaken as he was diagnosed with cancer in 1991. To be perfectly honest it rocked the foundations of our entire family. Our patriarch, our rock, our war hero was in the battle of his life against the most relentless foe he’d ever confronted. And it was a war he couldn’t win. In the early morning hours of Jan 18, 1993 my grandfather passed away, his wife of 47 years by his side. He had survived poverty, hunger, the largest military conflict the world had ever seen, and he had raised a family but he couldn’t beat cancer.

If you met him once you’d never forget him. That’s the kind of man he was. Always ready with a smile and a handshake but a stern task master. He expected a lot from people but he gave in kind. He would frequent the same restaurants over and over and over. He was known by name at his favorite Mexican food place as well as the Chinese restaurant across the street. He would even go in the kitchens, talk to the cooks, and take their knives home to sharpen them. He was a regular visitor to a nearby pawn shop where he was treated like family. My grandpa built a number of their shelves and did odd maintenance there for years. He was so highly regarded by the owner that when I tried to pawn some stuff one day they refused my business, saying, “we don’t do business with family.”

After he died my mom quipped, “It says something about a man when the biggest flower arrangements at the funeral were from restaurants and pawn shops.”

I miss him dearly. That corny sense of humor, those rough hands, that smile, the fierce glare, that appetite, the wind chimes he made, the way he doted over his grandchildren, that was my grandpa. If I were to use one word to describe this man it would be PRIDE. So here I sit paying tribute to the closest thing I had to a father and paying homage to the bravest man I ever met. I know he’s up there in Heaven cutting up with his friends and looking in on his family and doing his best to protect us. As I cast my eyes to the sky I say, “I know you’re up there old man! I hope I can make you proud, half as proud as am to call you grandpa.”

Rest in peace old man, rest in peace.