I received a phone call yesterday while I was driving home from work. The news was not unexpected, but nevertheless, it was not easy to hear. My Grandfather, a member of the group of Americans Tom Brokaw dubbed The Greatest Generation, passed away.
Brokaw defines “the greatest generation” as American citizens who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America. My Grandfather exemplified everything that generation stood for. He served in the greatest war our world has ever witnessed, he was a business owner, he was a farmer, he was a husband and father. In short, he was like millions of other Americans from his generation.
My Grandfather grew up in Evanston, IL during the Great Depression. By all accounts he was poor, but probably no poorer than most people in those times. During the onset of WWII he enlisted in the Navy. He proudly served as a crew chief maintaining fighter aircraft on the USS Nehenta Bay, an aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific. Though he was never one to talk much about his time in the service, I managed to coax a few stories out of him (though not until after I myself had joined the military). He shared a few stories of the strafing runs their aircraft went on and how one of his pilots never returned to the aircraft carrier. He also told of surviving a kamikaze attack during the final months of the Pacific Campaign. The resulting attack damaged the USS Nehenta Bay and scuttled two of the USS Nehenta Bay’s sister ships. But mostly, he talked about the things all military veterans talk about – the card games, pranks, practical jokes, camaraderie, and the pride that comes from serving your country. He never questioned serving and never asked “why?” or “what if?” It was a job that he and millions of others of his generation were called to.
After the war my Grandfather settled in California. He was a mechanic by trade and eventually owned and operated a service station – back when the people at gas stations pumped your gas, topped off your fluids, washed your windows, filled your tires with air and served you an 8 oz. Coke in a glass bottle – all for about a buck. His service station was also a repair shop and he worked on cars, motorbikes, and small engines. My father worked there for a short time while he was attending college.
Several years later my grandfather sold the service station and bought a working farm where he and my Grandmother raised chickens, rabbits, and Appaloosas, a breed of horse known for their spotted coloring. I vividly remember gathering fresh eggs for breakfast when I was a kid. Their farm also featured an orchard with a multitude of fruit bearing trees – apple, cherry, plum, walnut, pomegranate and fig. Last fall my wife and I took a Mediterranean cruise for our honeymoon. On one of our excursions we stopped for lunch in a Medieval town in the Luberon villages of the Aix-en-Provence region of France. The town was perched on a small hill overlooking grape vineyards. After our lunch my wife and I took a stroll through the cobbled streets and at one point I had a fleeting moment of deja vu. I couldn’t place the memory and a few moments later it struck again. A sweet scent took me away and I looked up and saw a fig tree. The smell of fresh figs combined with the weather and the scenery brought back wonderful childhood memories – stories that I was able to share with my wife.
I was almost 7 when my family relocated from California to Alabama for my Dad’s job. I saw less of my Grandparents from that point, but they always remained in our lives. Shortly after we moved to Alabama my Grandparents sold the farm and moved to a smaller home that was situated by a small private lake in the middle of gold country – far away from the big cities and the bright lights. My grandfather had a small, 2 person sailboat and a couple canoes. He gardened and fished and tinkered in his shop all day. I have fond memories of visiting my Grandparents and spending the summer with my brothers rowing across the lake and fishing and raising the kind of trouble that boys are known to do when left alone. Some nights we camped out under the stars. You’ll never again seen so many stars as you will see camping under the naked sky in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The Milky Way sweeps across the sky and shooting stars add an exclamation point to the end of your day. Those summers lasted forever – but were never long enough.
As time went by, so did my Grandfather’s strength. The house by the lake became too much for him to take care of, so he and my Grandmother relocated once again to a smaller home that required less upkeep. He gardened, volunteered with the local Sheriff’s office, and remained active in the community. For my Grandfather’s 80th birthday, my Grandmother surprised him with a birthday party and a special gift. I flew out to California and escorted him to Washington, DC, where we met up with my brother, a US Marine, and my cousin, a Soldier in the US Army – the three grandchildren veterans of the War on Terror. Together, the four of us represented all four branches of the US Military. During our trip to DC we visited the newly opened WWII Memorial. We also took in parts of the Smithsonian, the Mall, and saw the White House. At age 80 my Grandfather was still a trooper and kept pace with his 3 grandchildren, even though his body was slowed by the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Though the trip only lasted a few days, I know it had a profound affect on him and was a memory he looked upon fondly. It is also one I will remember the rest of my life.
My Grandfather was not a perfect man, but he was a good man. He loved and was loved in return. He was a Son, and a Husband. He was a Father and a Grandfather. He was a Sailor and a Mechanic, a Farmer and a Business owner. He was an American and a member of the Greatest Generation. My grandfather passed away yesterday at age 84. And I will miss him.