The wind often blows over a grassy Panhandle hill, bending stalks and blades as it makes its way across the plains. It teases and pulls the leaves of the twisted and gnarled cottonwoods, causing sparkling glimmers of light to dance and play in their silvery green canopies.
This specific hill is in a beautiful spot, well maintained and cared for, and spots of festive, seasonal color breaks up the expanse of sun-bleached green than spreads out as far as the eye can see. It’s peaceful and serene in that place, and always hushed. Often, the loudest sound is the wind, sometimes lifting voices of mournful song into the air and carrying them away. The leaves flutter, as do the wreaths, flowers and small flags that have been careful placed on the graves.
Near one tree, six feet under the grass, rests the remains of my grandfather. Deep down in the soil, his casket is nestled in a metal vault, engraved with his name, dates commemorating his birth and death, and an etched medallion acknowledging and celebrating the fact he was a veteran of the armed forces, and had fought for his country on foreign shores.
My grandfather was raised in Kansas, and was one of several children born into a farm family, struggling to scratch a living out of the fertile, but rocky, soil of their homestead. The family had a proud background, but somewhere along the way, had fallen on hard times. Soon after his birth, the Great Depression hit, making the fight for survival even more difficult. He only attended school until the eighth grade, because another pair of hands was needed at home to put food on the table. His childhood is documented through only one or two photographs. One of these has a place of pride in my dining room. This photograph’s informal setting is different than many from that era.
In this photograph, two young boys —my grandfather and his brother— are pictured, seated on a small wooden wagon. They don’t wear fancy clothes and their faded denim overalls, white cotton shirts and worn, lace-up work boots speak volumes about their daily lives. My grandfather holds a collie dog, and he and his brother look up at the camera, shy and defensive. The brothers were close, and that dog was a beloved friend. Sadly, just a few years later, my grandfather’s brother was dead, claimed by a sudden illness, and his world became smaller and less bright. I never knew what became of the dog. My grandfather didn’t talk about his childhood, and the disconnected pieces of information I gathered over the years came from others in my family.
To my knowledge, there weren’t any other photographs taken of him until he was a grown man, striking out on his own to make a life for himself. Those later photos are less casual, and in one, denim overalls are replaced by dark slacks, polished shoes, crisp dress shirt and a sweater vest. The key difference is this photo is not in the clothing, but in his smile. Still a little shy, underneath the surface a hit of mischief lurks, and his eyes sparkle with possibility. A few years later other pictures were taken, many of them including a young girl who lived on a neighboring farm a few miles away, who eventually became his wife, and in time, my grandmother. Times were still tough, but their hope and boundless sense of possibility comes through in those later pictures. They started the work of building a house and my mother was born.
In the central, rural parts of the United States the war in Europe was a distant thing, almost abstract to most of the people who farmed the land, or ran the various small businesses that supported the community. Daily news updates were broadcast over the radio and were listened to each evening after supper, and there was a growing amount of uncertainty and worry. Still, it was all happening far from Kansas, and although horrific, the distant conflict wasn’t the primary concern for many. Ordinary folks were still focused on trying to make a better future for themselves and their families. That changed on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor, ushering in the United States’ formal entry into the war. Our country had been attacked, its sovereignty and its foundation of liberty, freedom and justice threatened. Soon, my grandfather, and hundreds of thousands of young men like him, were wearing uniforms and shipping off to battle. Some headed to Europe to join the fight there. He was sent to the South Pacific.
When I was growing up, I was a frequent visitor to my grandparent’s home. They’d relocated to Texas several years earlier and for the first years of my life, my family lived right next door. When we later moved away for a time, my brothers and I spent our summers there, dividing our vacation between two sets of grandparents. I was the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family, and until I was about five years old, all of my grandparents and great-grandparents were alive and I remember all of them vividly. They indulged me and shared many stories. I was a precocious child, although sometimes shy among strangers. I could ask just about anything I wanted, and always got an answer. Except when I asked about the war. Then, there was silence. My grandmother would change the subject and redirect my attention. Watching war movies was not permitted, and the only food my grandfather wouldn’t eat was rice. I didn’t really understand these oddities, but accepted them as just the way things were. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned there was a time when the only thing my grandfather had to eat was rice. POWs in the Pacific didn’t receive anything else, and when they were fed, the rice was often spoiled, fermented or infested with insects.
In many ways, my grandfather was my best friend. He called me his little buddy, even after I was well into middle age. He was a proud man, but not prideful. His sense of right and wrong was a fundamental part of him, and he did his best to instill the same values into me. He never spanked me, although more than once I deserved it. Instead, he’d take me out into the backyard and sit me down at the white picnic table to talk things over. He occasional cursed, but never yelled. He advised me to always carry a clean handkerchief, and pointed out that a pocket knife was a handy tool to have. He gave me my first one, although I lost it long ago. I still have his. He carried it all the years I knew him.
We had our rituals. My brothers and I would wait for him to get home from work, and would have a big glass of iced tea waiting for him. He’d greet us, drink his tea and ask us about our day. He was always interested in how we’d spent our time, and would shake off his own worries or stresses by immersing himself in our childhood world. Late at night, he and I watched the news together, and he’d explain what was going on. Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner where highly respected journalists, and he liked hearing what they had to report. They stuck to the facts, good and bad. Paul Harvey dispensed the ‘rest of the story’ and offered a wry, cynical twist to his segment. Opinion pieces and speculative editorials were clearly labeled as such, and came with the appropriate disclaimers. After the news, we’d watch Wagon Train or Rawhide, and then the national anthem would be played, accompanied by footage of the American flag flying in the breeze. He never turned off the television until the anthem was finished, and kept his eye on the flag the entire time. How times have changed.
My grandparents’ friends came from similar backgrounds, and all lived within a mile of each other. Most, if not all, of the men were veterans themselves and all of their wives had also served in their own ways, by building munitions, volunteering for the war efforts, and keeping things running as best they could while the war was fought. They all remembered the Depression years, and the men all saved scrapes of metal, pieces of wood, and jars and cans filled with nuts, bolts, hinges, latches and screws. They helped each other build fences, pour concrete, and shingle roofs. I knew each of their homes well, and was well acquainted with their individual quirks. Once in a while the men would huddle together, talking about their past, and their shared experience. It was a private time between comrades, and never lasted long.
Those men all had their prejudices —my grandfather included. He wasn’t any kind of angel, and was hardheaded to a fault. To give him credit, he never let a prejudice get in the way of making friends with hardworking, honorable people, or of accepting them into his home. A man of faith, he had little use for organized religion. In later years, he continued to watch the news, bewildered at times at the direction we, as a nation, were taking.
My grandparents managed through years of hard work and perseverance to establish themselves firmly in the middle class. They were raised to believe neighbors helped neighbors, and raised their families accordingly. Education was respected, probably because they were limited by circumstance in their own educational opportunities. However basic their education, they’d learned the Bill of Rights in primary school, and had a good working understanding of the precepts of the Constitution. They dreamed of a better life for me and my brothers and helped us with our dreams as best they could. They didn’t always understand our choices, but accepted that we had to find our own ways. Both my grandparents welcomed my husband, although same sex marriage wasn’t legal, and accepted him as a part of his family. There was never a question about it.
My grandfather was a man of few words, and he picked them carefully. He abhorred lies. Even painful, devastating truths were preferable, and could be accepted. He didn’t hold grudges, but never forgot betrayal. He was leery of politicians and told me once to check everything they said, since most of them had their own agenda. He observed that some were working people when they took office, but most were wealthy when they left and there was good reason for that. He urged me to vote, and never missed casting his own ballet. A Republican, he didn’t hesitate to cross party lines when he felt the other side offered a better choice. He would have been dismayed and saddened by the situation today —not by the differing opinions, but by the deep divisions working their way into our national psyche, and by the depths of dishonesty and duplicity demonstrated by both political camps.
During the years he was a part of my life, he never spoke of the war or the battles he’d been a part of, all those many years ago. Except once, and that moment was less of a discussion than an offered glimpse back in time. One day as he was going through drawers hunting for some misplaced paperwork, he pulled out a small cardboard box. He hesitated, and after a moment, he offered it to me. I unwrapped the ancient rubber band holding it together and opened the lid. Tucked between layers of cotton were the service bars, stripes and medals he’d hidden away for over fifty years. He didn’t say anything as I examined each one, and I couldn’t think of anything to offer or ask, except respectful silence. When I was done, he placed them back into the box, secured the lid, and placed it back into the depths of the drawer to remain hidden until the end of his life. I never mentioned that moment to anyone else. It was a secret, special moment shared between two men; one near the end of his path, and the other well in the middle of his own. I knew I’d learned something in that moment, but wasn’t sure what it was, other than maybe— maybe he felt I’d become someone worthy of the offering he made that day.
A couple of years ago, my mother told me she was sending me a package, and that it included a few things from my grandparents’ house, in which she now lives. She didn’t provide much detail, and I honestly didn’t think anything about it. A few days later, the package arrived, and I put it aside to open later. The next day, I unwrapped a selection of childhood toys saved, a serving bowl, and some linens. Near the bottom of the box was a tissue-wrapped parcel. I parted the wrapping. Inside, I discovered a journal of sorts, about a half inch thick, bound with creased brown leather. My mom included a note: “Your grandfather would have wanted you to have this,” it said. “I tried to read it, but it was just too hard. Now it’s yours to keep.”
The old, tattered journal had been squirreled away in one of my grandfather’s hidey holes. Each page was filled with tiny, cramped handwriting, and told the story of his time in the service. There were a few snapshots included, tucked between the pages. The words inside aren’t particularly well-organized, but offered a glimpse into the man he was before his years of service and provided clues about how those years changed him. The pages are filled with mundane, day to day observations, doodles, lists of things he learned to do, and occasionally, short yet profound offerings. ”Why?” asks one. “Terrible deaths,” states another. “Afraid,” and “Freedom,” and “thoughts of home.” There are unsettling sentences and paragraphs buried unexpectedly within the mundane, and my mother was right —it’s hard reading; poignant, personal and revealing hidden layers of a very private man. Like those talks at the picnic table all those years ago, it became a kind of discussion between us, forming new additions to my own foundations. Those private recorded thoughts offer a view into the mind and personality of the man who stood by me all of my life, and who I stood by as he took his last breath.
There’s a sense of ordinary greatness to the words in those pages, and unplumbed humanity in all its glory and disappointment, now meshed seamlessly with the memories I carry with me.
Under that grassy hill rests the remains of my grandfather and my greatest friend. He fought for his country when needed, then moved on to other things. He did the best he could in life. He was protective of his family, and defended the rights and the principles of the nation he knew and believed in. He pledged his allegiance. All Presidents were his, even the bad ones. He owed his own responsiblity in their election, because he was inherently a part of this nation and its choices.
Near his grave are others, of course, and somehow, their placement is eerie. Like a grid of the old neighborhood, friends and neighbors in life rest near their fellows in death. Most fought for the same things my grandfather did and their grave markers and tombstones bear witness to their service to the nation and inform visitors to this windy place. All had their own secret stories. All had hopes, dreams, horrible truths and prejudices that defined their lives. All fought against that horrible darkness which haunts men and women the middle of the night, and wrestled with demons unknown. All prayed for deliverance and succor. All loved, and were beloved.
This Memorial Day weekend, the smell of hot dogs, hamburgers and steaks cooking on the grill floats through the air. The sound of music and children’s laughter is carried through our neighborhoods. People argue, fight, and battle each other on social media. Lies will be told; truths revealed. Children will be born. Lovers will hold hands and whisper secrets to each other. Some will pause to listen to the birds sing, and marvel at the freedoms we enjoy and the sacrifices many made to ensure our futures. The wind will blow, causing leaves on a cottonwood tree to dance in the summer afternoon light above the peaceful graves of those past soldiers who fought the good fight.
Thank you, grandpa, from your little buddy. Because of you, and others like you, I live free.