My mother was born on August 15, 1941. Her mother died a week later, leaving behind an 8-year-old son and an infant daughter. My grandmother’s purse and other belongings were swept up and put into a cedar chest that now sits in my mom’s house.
When my mom was not quite four months old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My grandfather, then almost 30, joined the Navy. He could have stayed home and helped raise his two children, but he chose to leave them with family and go off to war instead.
I don’t know why he made that choice. Perhaps it was the patriotic fervor that Pearl Harbor brought, a feeling that we collectively experienced again on 9/11 when we realized that the United States was indeed vulnerable to attack. Perhaps it was his chance to get out of the Texas oilfields. Perhaps it was his chance to leave his grief behind.
The few pictures and patches give us a glimpse of what he looked like then. I still have an opened hand grenade shell, and some of his standard issue Navy stainless steel flatware with the initials U.S.N. carved on the bottom side. At the bottom of the cedar chest is a glass heart that he carved from the shattered window of a Japanese zero, his dog tags and a few other pieces of memories.
He described how basic training in California was the best time of his life, in part because he loved San Diego, in part because he had a freedom he had never experienced before.
When the subject turned to his role in the war, he did not talk about it — perhaps out of modesty, perhaps out of fear.
Who were his friends? What type of work did he do? What was it like to be one of 55,000 Seabees on the beaches of Okinawa? Did he know anyone who died?
Those are the typical questions any kid would ask. And ask I did. But he just nodded his head and changed the subject.
With my mom, uncle, aunt, and first cousin after my dad's funeral in 2007.
We know what happened to the family my grandfather left behind in early 1942. My mom and her brother sent to live with her grandparents, who died within a week of each other when mom was just 4, and then to a kindly aunt who took them both in until my grandfather returned with a new girlfriend in tow. They married after the war, moved to East Texas, and stayed.
My uncle and his father did not speak for 13 years, in part due to battles over my grandfather’s new wife. My uncle says that, aside from a few stories that you would hear in any junior high boys locker room, my grandfather did not say anything about his wartime service.
“He just didn’t talk about it. I don’t think he could.”
My mother says I shouldn’t feel bad that he never spoke about the war. He didn’t say much to her about it, either. He didn’t say much about anything, in fact.
I think it’s more a reflection of the man than of the time he served in the military that we don’t know more about this period in his history. Soldiers of that generation did not talk about their experiences in war. It wasn’t until “Saving Private Ryan” was released, 12 years after my grandfather’s death, that members of the “Greatest Generation” finally felt empowered to share feelings that had long been repressed.
Today, 23 years after his death, my mom still speaks in somewhat hushed, reverent tones about the man whose expectations of others exceeded his ability to give and receive love. But the details of his life, outside the outline used in his obituary, remain a mystery. Just like the purse that sits at the bottom of the cedar chest, untouched with the same contents it carried 68 years ago.
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