Earlier this year I wrote a blog post about a man who greatly influenced my desire to become a writer. He was my storyteller, and he died in March at the age of 87. If you are a conscious human being, when you know a man is 87 you tend to ask, yourself if not him, if he had been in WWII (The Big One*).
That man was my maternal grandfather, Granddaddy. And he was in the war. He was a First Division Marine on Guadalcanal. He didn't talk much about it. He liked reading about it, and watching TV shows about it, Guadalcanal in particular, WWII (The Big One*) in general. We, family and friends, gave him books and VHS tapes about those two specific topics for years. He was always happy to have them, but I never saw him watch the tapes, and I only ever saw him leaf through the books in the first few minutes of him receiving them.
The truth is, Granddaddy was a seething mass of contradictions, and, frankly, I think he liked it that way. People thought I was especially close to him, but I knew, in an abstract way when he was alive and more concretely now that he is dead, that I would never know him. He's left more questions for me than answers.
I do know that, despite the fact that he rarely talked about it except in the most broad way, he was proud of having served on Guadalcanal. He told me two stories about his time there.
He joined the Marines at 17. His mother had died when he was a toddler and he'd been raised, mostly, by his aunt in Macon. He had to get permission from his father in order to join the Marines, and his dad wasn't too pleased about it. Granddaddy told him he was determined, and my great-grandfather signed the papers, telling him that he was making a mistake, but that he guessed if anything would grow him up the Marines would, but don't come cryin' to him later.
Granddaddy went through basic at Camp Lejeune and was at Guadalcanal within the year. The division was shipped out to war with no combat training, and they learned what they could on paper on the ships over. His fifth night on the island, having killed men, nearly been killed, hacked his way through a forest, and eaten the first of a thousand coconuts, he wrote to his father. He said, "I've changed my mind. You were right. Can I come home now?"
He knew he couldn't. But that was his sense of humor, to admit he was wrong, wryly acknowledge it, but never expect anyone to get him out of it.
The second story was about him leaving the island. He'd just turned 18 when the Army relieved them. Evidently, enough Japanese were dead, air strips were chopped out of the forest, and their job was done. Slogging down the beach with other marines, heading out to the boats that would take them to Australia or New Zealand, he ran past a commanding officer. The officer, noting something awry in Granddaddy's pack, pulled him aside and made him give up the items: a Japanese bayonet, maps in a leather case, and a small, leather-bound journal filled with Japanese writing.
Granddaddy argued to keep the items, but the CO demanded he turn them over, and so he did.
He told the second story more often, and each time he did, it seemed that he felt a different way about it. The end of the story didn't invite questions, but I had plenty, based on both the details of the story as well as his mood on the telling and the ending.
I wondered how he'd come to possess the items. Were these from men he'd, well, killed? And if not, what? Had the items been for sale? Why would you buy them, if so? It seemed... unsavory. And yet, the alternative was to believe he'd taken them off dead Japanese he'd killed. I never knew what I wanted to believe more, and I don't think he did either.
I called a lot, every week, sometimes more, occasionally less. But I always called him on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. Our relationship thrived on routine, and on those days I would always open the same way: "Hey, Granddaddy. Thanks for saving the free world!" He'd laugh, I'd laugh, he'd remind me that he won the Korean War from a desk in Atlanta, and then we'd have our usual "what's going on this week?" chat.
He died in March, and so Monday is the first Memorial Day in over twenty years that I haven't made that call. There was a big spread in the Sunday paper about veterans in my area. It made much about the fact that survivors of WWII (The Big One*) were all in at least their eighties and were dying off rapidly.
I used to read those articles and be proud. This year I read them and am pissed. Why are they still alive and Granddaddy is gone? Why wasn't he the last one to go? It always seemed like he would be. He seemed invincible. How could he have gone through all that and be mortal? And why are any of them left if he's not?
I think, in many ways, I am angry at having my routine thrown. I know that the entire day will feel off, that I will feel the pull to do something, and then I will remember to call him, and then I will remember that he's not there to call, and I will feel angry and lost all over again.
I know what Memorial Day is all about. And I know that I should go down to the park and stand with my hand over my heart while they play the national anthem and I should honor them all. But this year, my Memorial Day is made up of one soldier.
So, Granddaddy, I am so pissed that you died, but I miss you anyway. Thanks for saving the free world. However you did it.
*Whenever Granddaddy would say "WWII," which he would pronounce as "dubaya dubaya two," my grandmother, Ruthie, would chime in "The Big One!" They were a great team. I can't hear it now without mentally adding that tag. After she died I tried to remember to do it, but I often failed, and both of us waited, in vain, for Ruthie to chime in.