Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Nowhere America: Walt...


 Hey, old man --- it’s been a long time.  I should have gotten back here sooner and much more frequently; but youth has no concept of time, no sense of urgency.  I don't know.  I guess I mistoakenly assumed you would always be around.

 Upon my granddad’s headstone I place a can of skoal, a fishing lure, and a baseball.  They are the three things that remind me the most of him.  I guess I could have placed a bottle of corn husker’s lotion there as well. Every time I see that bottle, every time I smell its contents -- I immediately think of granddad….Maybe next time.

 I always thought that granddad was a good man; but it wasn’t until after he died that I found out that he was actually a GREAT man.

Because of my granddad I have become somewhat of a junior World War II historian.  The day granddad passed away hit me like a ton of bricks  -- he, along with Kenny and myself, were supposed to go fishing the next morning.  Grandad spent the previous day getting the boat ready, double checking all the gear, getting bait and putting it in the fridge.  We were going to be well prepared for the trip ----- then he unepextectdly passed away in his sleep that evening…

 As a young man you have this tendency to feel ignorantly immortal.  The concept of death never really crosses your mind unless you see it in the movies --- or it happens to a loved one.

 I can’t even begin to fathom why I never even considered that granddad would be gone someday.  He was always going to be around, right?  I was so busy (or so I thought) with my own life that I didn’t spend near enough time with him.  I took him for granted, and I’m not sure that I will ever get over that.

 The funeral was rough.  I broke down and felt the weight of the loss as I saw him lying peacefully in the coffin.  But in all my misery I could at least take solace in knowing that he was going to meet his maker dressed in a new pair of Key bib overalls. A suit would not have accurately portrayed the man that he was.

For as long as I could remember granddad, except on vary rare occasions, had always been in a pair of overalls.  I do remember seeing him in a suit for my wedding; but he didn’t have to do that.  I’d have been perfectly okay with him seeing him at the church in his bibbers, a can of skoal in the front chest pocket, ball cap on his head, slightly tilted to one side.

 After the funeral the family went back to grandma’s house, where she pulled out an old shoe box full of family history that I had never seen before.  I was immediately drawn in by a black and white photograph of my granddad, then a very young man, dressed in his class A army uniform -- hat slightly tilted to one side.

 It was as if I had found a buried treasure.  There were more pictures of granddad during his days serving in World War II and a copy of his discharge papers. (It’s a good thing he had a copy; I found out later that the building where granddad’s original papers were kept caught fire and so his records were lost.)

 I had always been (somewhat) aware that granddad served his country and had fought in a war, but I was completely oblivious as to the details.  But as soon as I got a hold of his discharge papers I became obsessed with learning about a chapter of my granddad’s life that I knew absolutely nothing about.

 From his discharge papers I found out that my granddad served in the Pacific theatre of operations (PTO) with the seventh division and made seven beach heads.  His World War II journey began in Attu and Kiska --  small, frozen, islands off the coast of Alaska, from there he traveled south to Hawaii for refit -- where he got to play in a baseball ball game against a traveling all-star team with Joe DiMaggio on it. After Hawaii the seventh division hit a slew of islands that I had never even knew existed - Kwajelein, Truk, Eniwitok.  Then there were Islands that I had heard of, that I had seen on the History channel, and I gasped --- Okinawa, Iwo Jima.  My God, he was there? 

 I soon became obsessed with learning about World War II in general.  I poured through several Stephen Ambrose books, learned about E.B. Sledge and Robert Leckie, read about the atrocities committed all along the eastern front between Germany and the Soviet Union.  I pretty much delved into everything accept the China, Burma, India theatre --- but I will get to that someday.

 Then I began to remember some things that granddad said to me as a kid that didn’t really mean anything to me before he died.  After he died, however, it meant everything.

 I remembered bringing home a time life book about World War II from the school library.  I’m not real sure how, as a third grader, I managed to get a hold of that book. Given it's content I probably shouldn’t have had it. But, hey, it's better to see images of war then girls in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, right?  (Every year the swimsuit edition had all the swimsuits removed....I'm sure I could make some kind of argument railing against censorship, but I digress. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the school librarian removed the pages to keep a bunch of adolescents chuckleheads from disrupting the peace that is supposed to be the library --- can't say that I blame her)

When Granddad walked through the living room and saw me lying on the floor with the book he picked me up and set me on his lap; and the two of us, in granddads favorite rocking chair, thumbed through the pages together.

 Upon seeing a Navy ship (I apologize I don’t remember the type):
 Granddad:  “I was on one of those ships. I remember lying on my belly for three hours while under fire.  There wasn’t a damn thing I could do.”

 When seeing a painting of a soldier with his chin strap buckled:
 Granddad:  “You see that?  You never buckled your chin strap on your helmet.  If an arty (artillery) round hit close by, the concussion will get under your helmet and rip your head clean off.”

When seeing a picture of a Japanese officer holding his sword:
"I saw a Jap up on top of a cliff.  He hollered a bunch of stuff I couldn't understand -- the he drove his sword deep into gut.  He went limp and fell off the cliff."

 Shortly after that the room got really quiet.  Granddad continued to thumb through the pages for a few more minutes.  Then he quietly set me down and walked away.

 It is this very moment that I think of when I wonder if, had I been more inquiring about our family history, I should have ever brought up World War II with granddad.  I think, in retrospect, that it’s a good thing that I didn’t.  Some memories are better left in the past.

 I found out later that after the war the only thing that Granddad kept when he returned home was his discharge papers and a few photographs.  He didn’t keep his uniform and he gave his medals to his girlfriend --- who didn’t happen to be grandma at the time.  I’m guessing he never asked for them back after the two had gone their separate ways.

 So when I created his shadow box all the medals that I put in it were replicas that I had bought; as well as his chevrons.  Even his old pictures were copies.  As it hangs on my living room wall I will occasionally get a sense of sadness that granddad didn’t have the desire to hang on to his things.  But then I remind myself that I didn’t go through what he went through; that I could never even begin to understand what it was that he saw and how it affected him for the remainder of his life. When I really think about it, I can’t hardly blame him for not wanting to relive any part of that painful past.

 But there are a lot of things other than his time during the war that I miss about him.  I miss watching him saunter around in his bib overalls as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

I miss watching him dance whenever that old swing music played on the stereo.  "C'mon, Mother, let's dance."

 I miss all those huge breakfast’s he made for Kenny and I while Mom was in the Phillippines visiting family.  We would stay the night at Grandma and Grandddad’s while dad went to his nightshift job and in the morning we would be treated to pancakes, eggs, bacon, orange juice and Mighty Mouse on the television.

I thought it was odd but never realized it's signifigance until Dad told me years later, but granddad would make a hot cup of coffee --- and then put ice cubes in it.  He would drink from the cup until the brew was cold.  Turns out that during his time in the war he never once got to drink a hot cup of coffee and so got used to it cold.

I (kinda) miss watching granddad swab all the bacon grease out of the pan with a slice of bread and wolf the saturated wonder bread down......Growing up during the depression nothing went to waste.  (Blech)  It's not wonder that heart failure would be how the old man met his end.

I miss baseball with Granddad. 

There were several ways to enjoy a baseball game at Walt's house.  Of course the Kansas City Royals are big in these parts so they were always on TV.  But grandad was also a huge Atlanta Braves fan.  With Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz how could you not like the Braves?

If the Braves happen to be on tv grandad would watch them with the television muted so that he could hear the Royals game on the radio.  It was all very confusing at first, but once I got used to it I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with two games simultaneously.

In my opinion the best was to enjoy a baseball game at granddads was outside on the front porch.  I still remember the perfect day to listen to a game on the porch; overcast with a slight breeze.  Granddad would open the big living room window, put the game on the radio, and lead us outside.  I would lean up against the porch pillar while granddad kicked back in his rocking chair.  To this very day I just love listening to a well announced game on the radio.

I miss watching the old man smack the ball around.  On a camping trip the family got a ball game going.  Now, Granddad was a small ball guy who had always talked about being able to stick the ball anywhere he wanted it to go.  On this day the old man showed that he still had it.  The pitch was in the inside corner --- granddad, smooth as silk, smacked a line drive over the shortstops head and into the gap.  I still laugh when I think about grandma losing it when she saw her almost eighty year old husband hoofing down the line. 

"Walt, you stop that!  You're gonna fall and break your hip!!"

Sadly, I never went fishing with him, but I loved hearing him explain his take on fishing.

Granddad fished for all sorts of different species -- but more than anything he was a catfish man.  He loved to go out to his favorite spot, the hog trough, (I have no idea where that is) and chum the water with some kind of fermented soy bean concoction --- a secret that he took to the grave with him.  (He also left us behind without revealing all his green worm spots -- which is particularly aggravating.  Green worms -- no so affectionately nicknamed "shit worms"  are small, vile smelling creatures that leave a eye watering, gag inducing stench on your hands that doesn't go away after several washes. But, man, it's damn good bait

Granddad was a firm believer in flexible rods and loose drag.  I have literally taken one of his rods and bent it into an oval.

"Damn, granddad, how in the hell do you catch anything with this?"

Granddad:  "Ya gotta set the drag real loose, see?  Then, once you hook 'em you let 'em run and wear themselves out. Best way to catch big 'un."

It's not how I would fish -- but I'm not about to question the logic.  The old man has hauled in more that his fair share of big cats.

I miss granddads easy way of talking.  I miss the words and phrases he used.

That ol' boy.  Doo-daddy.  Whatchacallim.  Crick (that's Creek -- but I say it that way too).

On and on and on.  Writing about how he spoke does him no justice.  You just had to hear him speak.

A few of many great memories of a GREAT man.  My hope is that I live to be half the man that granddad was; then I can feel pretty good about the time I spent here on this old earth.

See ya, granddad.  When I come back I'll bring another can of Skoal --- and I'll remember the Corn Huskers lotion.