Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Flag On My Wall

The Flag On My Wall Posted by Hello

There is a flag on my wall. It is folded neatly in a triangle and held securely in a shadow box that exactly matches it's dimensions. It covered the coffin of a man I once knew. He wasn't a world leader. He never made millions. He never invented a thing. Yet, he had a distinction that put him above many other men. He served his country in a time of war. He bares the title "veteran" as he bore it during his entire life with quiet dignity.

Some called him son, husband, father, Lee, Mr. H., onery and stubborn. I just called him Grandpa. He was a hero to me before I ever understood that he served his country. He left a legacy behind him when he passed. It wasn't money or a house or a memorial plaque in a building. It was the life he led and the people that knew him. The ones that loved him and the love he gave back.

What I learned about the man in the inner sanctum.

He taught me above honor, respect and loyalty. Standing up for the right and defending against the wrong. Working hard and taking care of your family. He wasn't a big man. He barely stood 5'5" in his stockings and weighed about 150lbs most of his life. But some said he was the toughest man they ever knew. To the eight of his grandchildren, he was as soft as a teddy bear.

Growing up, I always recall the picture of him in his dress blue navy uniform hanging on my grandparents' wall. He looked about 14 and wasn't much older when he joined. His parents had high hopes for him. They wanted him to go to Rockhurst College and then become an attorney, but it was never meant to be. On Dec 7, 1941, the United States of America was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. My grandfather was just about to turn 16. He wanted to join the military immediately, but his parents insisted that he wait. Immediately upon his birthday in 1943, turning just 17, he brought papers home and demanded that his parents sign a waiver for him to join the Navy. He wanted to go and fight. His older brother had already joined the Army.

He served two tours in the Pacific. His ship part of the battle group that supported the landing on Iwo Jima. He was a gunner's mate, a hell raiser and a hero that we little knew. Frankly, because he never spoke about it much. Not to his wife. Not to his children accept for quiet discussions with his one son that had served in Viet Nam. Even those were infrequent and not shared with the rest.

It was not until the year that he died, the year I was 17, that I learned anything specific about his service. It was the summer of that year, when I finally had a car and freedom to roam where ever I wanted. Those treks often led me to the little white house on 9th street where I would sit on the porch and drink iced tea and talk with my grandfather. Sometimes grandma would come out and sit on the porch swing, gently rocking back and forth while we talked about dreams, history, the future.

When I think about them, that's how I picture them.

My grandfather was a brilliant man. He loved history and building things. He had a wonderful imagination when it came to putting things together. He once reconstructed a fountain and arched entry way with mosaic tiles that he had seen in a picture of mogul India. Like a lot of dreamers, he often put everything he had into his dreams. There were times when they had money, nice homes and nice cars and times when they had lost it all and lived simply while he dreamed another dream.

The summer I spent talking with him was probably the best time of my life. I had learned to love history from him and we would sit and talk about battles and historic moments for hours. We talked about his time while he was in the Navy. Most of our discussions talked about being in trouble for one hell raising moment or the other. He spent plenty of time in the brig for getting drunk and starting fights on some Pacific island during leave. Later his brothers and friends would recall that he was short and wiry and never learned to stay down or back down from a man that was bigger than him. That was true his entire life.

Towards the end of summer, he told me about his time on ship during war. As a gunner's mate, his job mostly consisted of feeding ammunition to the gun. He told me that he recalled shelling Okinawa. A rich man's house sat on the cliff over looking the ocean. They placed two rounds on the house and in seconds it was obliterated. He wondered, during our conversation, if anyone had been in the house. He felt badly that they might have killed someone's family.

Our talks drifted away until one day when he told me about participating in the landing on Iwo Jima. After days of bombardment came the day of landing. He volunteered to run a flat bottomed boat running men and equipment to the shore. On that day he won a bronze star. Of course, he never said so. It was grandma that told us later he won a medal, but she didn't know what it was for. He only talked about the battle and what he saw. His boat was not part of the first wave, but the third. As they approached the shore, artillery and small arms fire landed on and around them. Men died before they could leave the boat. Others drowned or fell on the shore as fast as they could be unloaded. On his third trip bringing men to the landing, his commanding officer told him to return and be relieved.

He ignored the order when approaching the shore for the final disgorging of marines, he noticed many wounded men being shot to pieces before they could receive help and the struggling marines trying to save their buddies and put them on the flat bottom boats before they returned to the ships. He ordered the sailors with him to start reaching into the water and pull any men in that were still alive. Corpsmen started bringing the wounded out to the boat, all the while they took fire. When they were full they would run the boats back to the ships and the wounded would be hauled up with ropes while others were handed up the rope ladders hanging down the sides of the ships.

He didn't remember how many runs he made. The last trip, when he received a bronze star I believe, he saw a group of men trying desperately to give aid and protect their patients on a small strip of land on the beach. All of the men were too injured to try and make it to the boat as it hovered a few feet off of shore so he backed up and made a run for the shore, beaching his boat directly behind the group. The sailors and corpsmen brought the severely wounded to the boat while they continued to take fire. They finally pushed off and returned to the ship. On the way back, the motor started smoking and the boat barely made it back.

He was ordered to stand down after that.

I was quite stunned when he told me. I had seen movies and black and white photos and films that depicted the battle, but I never knew he had been a part of it. When I look back and so many wonderful times spent with this man, taking us on tractor rides, showing us how to use a skill saw or playing hide and go seek, it was in that one moment that I understood what had made this man. I was proud to be his granddaughter.

He died about a month later of a massive heart attack. I was there when it happened. One minute he was sitting at the table eating pork chops and sharing the bones with their mutt Buttons and the next he was gone. I sat on the stair case out of the way while the paramedics came and tried to revive him. The loaded him on the gurney and took him to the hospital where he died the next day.

At his funeral, many people came. Some that I did not even know. While the occasion was somber, I recall many people standing around, sharing stories and sharing muted laughter. I recall in my peripheral memory hearing things like, "Do you remember when Lee rode that mule down to the water hole and stole all our clothes while we were skinny dipping?" laughter. "Hey, I remember when H.... was over at ......'s bar and that huge guy kept mouthing off and ol' H.... hit him right between the eyes with a right cross. Guy went down like a felled ox." "Yeah, H.... was a tough ol' bird. Didn't take shit off of anybody." "Mr. H.... was such a nice man. I remember when my car was broke down and I didn't have any money to fix it. He came over and worked on it all day until it ran and he wouldn't take anything for doing it." "Ol' Lee, he'd take in just about any stray off the street and give'em a job and some money. I always told him he had to be careful about that, but he wouldn't listen. I remember when that hippy guy stole all the money out of the cash register and Lee wouldn't press any charges. Said he figured the guy needed the money worse than he did. Still didn't stop him from taking them in. He never did learn."

There is a flag on my wall. It covered the coffin of one of the greatest men I ever knew. Today, I am reminded that he was one of many. A veteran.

God bless our soldiers and veterans.


The G-man said...

What a beautiful tribute to a life well lived.

I know I've harped on how well you write before, but have you ever considered writing a novel based on his life? You have the skill to do it and do it well.

Kat said...

G-man, thanks. It is the little I can offer after having received so much from him.

Not long ago, I was talking to my Dad about grandpa being in the Navy. My Dad said, "All he did was run around and get drunk and get thrown in the brig." I had forgotten until then how little my grandpa ever said about the war. Seems like most of his public stories did include a fair amount of reminiscing about his old trouble making days. I was kind of sad for my Dad because he would never know.

Honestly, I was too stunned after my dad said that to tell him differently. I wish he could have known his father like I did, just for those few minutes. Then maybe some things would have fallen in place.

Great men hide behind the most mundane of facades.

MichaelH121 said...

My Grandfather served during "The Great War" My Father during Korea. Me decades later. I take Veteran issue seriously. I Salute all who served.

The Stars and Stripes are folded,

Stars of white on field of blue.

It draped a coffin, was held with pride.

A lasting memory of you.

It is a symbol, it flew for cause,

Yet everytime I see it fly.

My chest is filled with freedoms air,

A tear wells up in my eye.

AFSister said...

Kat, that was a GREAT post (as usual, actually).
My Grandpa was also a WWII vet and my Grandma was a WAF during WWII. He died when I was a sophmore in high school, so I was still too young to really get into conversations like you had with yours just before he died. I wish I knew more about his war service. My Dad once told me that he left the Air Force at the 30 year mark not because that was full retirement, but because he was a trouble maker and wouldn't have advanced in rank any higher than he already was. Boy, I wish I knew what kind of trouble he got into!
When I was a Senior in high school we had to do a biographical essay on someone we knew. I picked him. He was always my hero, and his nicely folded flag sits in my Mom's house now, just as yours hangs on your wall. It is a constant reminder not only of the man I knew and loved, but of the sacrifices he made for his country. God bless our veterans......

Kat said...

Michael, I loved that poem. It was so fitting.

AF sister, I'm an AF sister too. My brother is in the AF too. I'm so happy that you enjoyed the story. Your grandfather probably was similar to mine. A young man at war and far away from home and then a good man who raised a good family. Thank you for appreciating the story.

Jason Rubenstein said...

Amazing entry, and beautifully written. I wish either of my great-uncles had spoken of their service in WWII. One was a surgeon in the Pacific, one a carpenter who spent the war building barracks all over the US.

And it's nice to hear about a great man who was 5'5" and 150# as I'm the same size (!) and, God willing, someone writes about me with the same kind of love with which you've written about your Grandpa.

Anonymous said...

My God, that was beautiful.