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Graves Duty
FtCusterPlaque.jpg

“I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they’re gone from your life.” — Maya Angelou

I visit my dad twice a year. On this particular early May morning the sky is cloudless, the air crisp; the grass is bejeweled with dew. Leaning against the side of my truck, I clip the end of an Onyx Vintage ‘97 and light it, taking a long, satisfying drag. I let the smoke warm the back of my palate, and a moment later I exhaust it with a long sigh. I discovered the pleasure of cigar smoking two years too late. I’ve convinced myself that this custom is something my dad and I could’ve enjoyed together.

I don’t need to come here, to Fort Custer National Cemetery, to visit Dad. Most people forgo visiting their loved ones in the cemetery two years after relegating them to their final resting place. My dad has been gone from me for a little more than seven years, but coming here a couple times a year somehow just feels right. I also suspect we have unfinished business between us.I envision us sharing a smoke on a Saturday afternoon over a couple of glasses of bourbon or scotch as we listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game. We had our differences, Dad and I, but whatever they were we could always put them aside for a couple of hours for the enjoyment of a baseball game.

One of my fondest memories is sitting alongside my dad, behind first base at Tiger Stadium. The year is 1968, it’s September and the Bengals are destined to go on to win the World Series the following month. Denny McLain would win 31 games that season, but it would be Mickey Lolich who would win the Series MVP award.

Earlier that summer, Dad had come home one evening after work and slipped into my hand a brown piece of paper haphazardly torn from a grocery bag. I turned it over and saw some markings. Puzzled, I looked closer. I turned the scrap 90 degrees, then 90 more: the first set of markings soon turned into a word, a moment later the word became a name. When I recognized the first name I didn’t have to puzzle over the second — “Bill Freehan!” I exclaimed, overjoyed. It was that famous Freehan trot I always emulated after drawing a walk and making my way down to first base during our neighborhood baseball games. “I ran into him in a grocery store this afternoon,” Dad told me, matter of fact. I was thrilled, not only by the treasure, but because Dad chose to give it to me instead of keeping it for himself — I was touched by his selflessness. Today I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t recall what became of that scrap of, to me, priceless grocery bag.

The Yankees were in town for a weekend series, it was late in the game with the Tigers comfortably ahead and McLain was on the mound. Mantle stepped up to the plate. Beyond the twilight of his career, he was in that crepuscular place reserved for athletes who have overstayed their welcome in a game in which, at some point, experience no longer counts. He’d lost his timing, along with much of his grace, and he routinely swung wildly and missed pitches that, a few years earlier, he would have sent into orbit. McLain looked in to Freehan for the sign; he shook off the first, as well as the second. Then he leaned back, stepped off the rubber, and held up the ball for Mantle to see, asking Mickey where he’d like the pitch. The crowd, which had grown complacent with the home team’s lead, sensed something was up. Mantle gamely swung his bat — arcing gracefully through his wheelhouse — to indicate where McLain should leave the ball for him. McLain nodded, went into his windup… and blooped the ball right where Mickey wanted it… Mickey returned the favor by launching the pitch into the right field bleachers. The crowd erupted. Mantle had certainly hit longer and more important homeruns, but the crowd perhaps had seen the writing on the wall, although they may not yet have read the text: this was Mantle’s final appearance at Tiger Stadium, and the homerun counted as the next to last round-tripper in his if not long but illustrious career. Mantle retired from baseball the following spring.

Beside me, Dad snorted his disgust. To him McLain committed the ultimate sin in baseball, or in any sport: allowing the opposition to score. Perhaps he recalled all too well the Black Sox scandal from the early part of the previous century in which eight Chicago White Sox players, Shoeless Joe Jackson among them, were found guilty of conspiring to throw the 1917 World Series. Although he was only a year old at the time it happened, the story reverberated throughout the baseball fraternity for decades. Years later, after Mantle died the result of a bad liver, I realized Dad knew more about Mantle’s off the field behavior and drinking habits than I did when I was 11, and that that perhaps played a part in his reaction that long ago afternoon.

I push myself away from the side of my truck and slowly make my way up the small knoll toward my dad’s marker. I’m thinking about that day at Tiger Stadium, the images undimmed by the passage of 35 years, and I regret not having relived the experience with Dad that final year of his life. In retrospect I think I feared that, had I asked him if he recalled what was for me such a memorable experience, he might say “No.”

I feel emptiness and a pain in my chest. I suspect the pain comes from not having more such fond memories, and wishing I had fewer memories of a childhood in which Dad often seemed a ghost, except as a disciplinarian.

I was six or seven years old when I took a spill from a bike that didn’t belong to me. It was too big for me and I was riding too fast and lost control. I landed hard, the bike on top of me, and promptly burst into tears. Dad, who’d watched the entire proceeding from a lounge chair on our porch, crossed the street in no great hurry. Perhaps he already knew what hadn’t yet occurred to me: that I was crying more from having given myself a good scare than from being hurt, although I’d banged my ankle pretty hard. He carried me back across the street and, once he’d determined I suffered no real damage, scolded me for being on a bike that I hadn’t yet grown into and for being so reckless. The lesson I came away with was to avoid risk.I kneel at the slab of marble that marks my dad’s existence and brush away a few dried grass clippings:

James C Guest

SSgt US Marine Corps

World War II

Oct 29, 1918 — Feb 10, 1998

Dad served in the Pacific arena and saw action on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place. Dad had been retired from the Marines several years before he met and married my mother — “I was smitten,” Dad related to me once shortly after Mom passed away. “She was the first woman I’d ever met who not only knew but had read …” I curse myself for not being able to recall the name of the author he mentioned: another element of his life has passed from existence forever.

Growing up I knew little of his wartime experiences. In youth we believe that little of what happened before we got here is of much importance. Still I learned, the hard way, that Dad was not an ex-Marine or a former Marine. He was a retired Marine. I learned that the Marines were a far more elite group of this country’s armed forces than was the Army.

Dad kept in touch with a select few of his comrades, most of whom to me were merely names he mentioned from time to time, save one — Sgt. Major Bean. Bean I met several times before he passed away the result of having acquired the HIV virus from tainted blood he’d been given during heart bypass surgery. I was 18 the last time I saw Bean. I had already reached my adult height but still skinny; Bean looked at me approvingly before looking over to my dad and exclaiming, “God, Jim, he’s a good-looking kid. We’ll make a Marine out of him, eh?” He promptly looked back at me and asked, “Do you like to kill?” I managed to stammer that the only things I’d ever killed were mosquitoes and that while I couldn’t say with any degree of certitude I enjoyed it, I enjoyed a certain gratification in succeeding with my first strike initiatives.

Dad never talked to me about joining the service. He never explained to me what I might be missing by forgoing a tour of duty during peacetime — the camaraderie, the male bonding. Years later, when I asked him why he never advised me, he merely said he thought I should live my own life and make my own decisions. I realized much later that I couldn’t have made an informed decision without the information he had withheld from me. I was angry but kept my disappointment to myself.

I recall standing next to Dad at the foot of the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington D.C. during one of the many Marine Corps reunions he attended. It was the summer of 1966. Earlier in the day, on a bus ride to the Marine Corps base in Quantico to attend an artillery demonstration, Dad introduced me to General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in history. I heard the reverence in Dad’s voice as he introduced me to this small and wiry man who, to me, seemed ancient. The best part of his life was obviously behind him, but he seemed an important personage to my dad, so I tried to hold him in some higher esteem. That evening, at the foot of the memorial, as I looked at the names of battles during which Marines lost their lives etched into the pedestal, many which I couldn’t pronounce, I heard my dad hiccough. I looked up at him and saw tears coursing down his cheeks. It was the first time I’d ever seen my dad cry. It would be many years before I understood the why behind the tears.

I asked my dad twice — once when I was a kid and again during the last year of his life, when I was 43 — to share with me some of his overseas experiences. The second time I’d hoped to come away with a greater understanding of why he was the way he was, and that perhaps, in sharing, he might experience a sort of healing. Each time I asked him, he refused. Whatever he did on Okinawa, whatever he saw, whatever he endured, he took with him when he died.

I learned more about the Marine that was my dad, after his death, from an older cousin who recalls Grandma reading a letter that her Uncle Jim had written on the back of a dead Marine, and that for years he couldn’t stand the sight of ketchup on the kitchen table. My cousin relates her favorite uncle’s homecoming: “He was tall and looked so handsome in his uniform. He dropped his duffel bag on the landing and I squealed, ‘Uncle Jim, tell me some stories about the war!’ He looked at me and his smile disappeared and he told me very sternly that I was never to ask him about the war.”Dad related to me, a few months before his death, a different, very abridged account of his homecoming: “I always felt cheated,” he said holding back his emotion, “because the family had moved while I was overseas and I never felt the satisfaction of coming home.”

Dad’s footlocker now serves as a coffee table in my house. Inside it are many treasures he left me, some which I’d never seen while he was alive. A black and white photograph depicting Dad as a young, handsome Marine in his dress blues sits next to the flag I was presented after his death. I display in my living room the saber he took from a Japanese soldier he left no longer in need of it, along with some photographs of John Wayne and Robert Ryan on location during filming of Flying Leathernecks. Dad sheepishly tells the story of his celebrity encounter: “They were rehearsing for a scene and the question came up whether the correct term was ‘graves duty’ or ‘grave duty.’” Graves duty meant retrieving the remains of dead Marines after a fire fight. “Wayne looks at me and says, ‘What about it, Sergeant, is it grave or graves?’ I told him, ‘graves.’” Of course when I tell the story I embellish it and impersonate my dad impersonating the Duke, and I end the tale by saying “And that’s how my dad became an unofficial advisor to John Wayne on the set of Flying Leathernecks.”

On March 14, 1997, I stopped by the house to pick up Dad. Four months previously he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, had since had a colostomy and begun chemo and radiation therapy. But that morning I was driving him to a memorial service for my mother, his wife of 43 years. Mom had died three weeks previously.

Dad’s eyes were red and he confessed to me how much he missed her, and how much he’d be willing to bargain for the chance to help her down the hall and to the bathroom just one more time. And then he burst into tears. Somewhere I found the wisdom to put my arms around him, noticing how narrow his shoulders had become, and held him until his grief was spent. He suddenly cursed himself for his weakness. I surprised myself further with additional wisdom, assuring him that his tears were in no way a sign of weakness, that they were a normal and healthy response to grief. He looked at me, and somehow we each understood that the student had, for that moment at least, become the teacher. The hug was something I gave often over the next 11 months, knowing how difficult it was for him to initiate it, and getting as much in return as I’m certain Dad received.

Seven months later, just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, I stopped by the house to take him to dinner. Dad was lonely without Mom and detested eating alone, and so this was a custom we repeated several times a week: I picked him up after work and took him to his favorite greasy spoon diner where everyone knew his name and where he seemed to take great pride in introducing everyone to “my son.” He of course insisted on picking up the tab for “intruding” on my time. On this particular evening I turned to lock the door while Dad took a cautious first step down from the porch and toward the car. He suddenly lost his balance and took a spill onto the concrete, hitting his knee hard. I bounded down the steps, knelt beside him and, after making certain he hadn’t seriously hurt himself, helped him to his feet. He attempted to hide the fear in his eyes by muttering something about his knee buckling. I drew a breath, prepared to scold him for not waiting for me, for taking an unnecessary risk, but some distant memory — the memory of a father scolding his young son for taking an unnecessary risk by riding a bike that was too big for him — stayed my mild rebuke.

Once Dad checked into hospice, I watched him slip the rest of the way away from me. One afternoon, while I was sitting at his bedside, his eyes suddenly flashed open, he cast a furtive look at me and exclaimed, his voice laden with paranoia, “ Who are you?” I winced inwardly, but placed my hand on his to reassure him. “It’s okay, Dad, it’s me, Joe. Your son.” The tension immediately left his face, and while I saw no recognition in his eyes, the smile that spread across his mouth assured me in return that he trusted my words. The smile lingered but a moment, before he drifted off again, but I was convinced that in that moment I also glimpsed no small measure of pride.

Two weeks later, at Dad’s memorial service, I spoke a few words; afterward family and friends told me that they were good words, spoken with eloquence. I thanked them because that was the polite thing to do, but I thought, then and even now, that they weren’t nearly enough. That a man’s life can be summed up in but a few hundred words seems, somehow, amoral.

Since Dad died I’ve returned to Washington D.C. to stand at the base of the Memorial I first saw in 1966, and I’ve read With the Old Breed, considered by many historians to be the finest account of World War II combat in the trenches ever written by an enlisted man. The author, Eugene B. Sledge, or Sledgehammer as his buddies called him, in his account of the fighting on Pelilieu and Okinawa told me all I needed to know about my dad’s service to this country, including what “graves duty” often really entailed — picking up corpses that have been sitting in the sweltering South Pacific sun for several days only to have the weight of the body cause it to separate from the arms — and I now understand a little better why he was the way he was.So now these twice yearly sojourns to visit Dad at his gravesite, the closest I can come to his realm without stepping over to the other side. I wonder if he is aware of my presence, if he can hear my silent musings, my audible ruminations, or if he even cares that I visit. I often wonder if the reason I visit is because I’ve taken it upon myself to care enough for both of us.

I take a long drag on my Onyx Vintage wondering how it could’ve burned down so quickly. I want to forgive my father for so much, but in order to forgive him I must elevate myself into a position of judge, and that’s something I find I just can’t do. So instead I decide that I must accept that I am who I am, in part, as a result of this man about whom I know so little. I need to consign him to a less prominent place in my life, perhaps in some favorite corner to which I can come from time to time if only to dust off the cobwebs. I resolve to stop staring at my past looking for answers, or to assign blame, and to start living my life today. Wanting to believe that I have within me the power to change and the courage to risk, to become the man I want to become, I resolve to reach out for my dreams, even if they should exceed my grasp, for, as Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

My cigar has gone out, and something in my eyes blurs my vision; I blink away the moisture and lay my hand on the cold marble into which my dad’s partial obituary is chiseled. In time that will be all that remains of him: a name, a rank, a war and two dates, not so unlike those around him in this honored place.

A moment later, I stand and make my way back down the knoll, the white markers across the way bearing witness to my departure, the silence a stark contrast to a battlefield I can only imagine.