The Man I Knew
I’m thinking about you a lot today, and I wanted to talk to you.
I know, I know. It always seems like I only reach out when I have a problem or a question. I remember you razzing me about only coming to see you when I needed something, and looking back, you were right more often than not.
That’s actually why we probably talk more now than those last few years before you went on. Pop, if I’d been smart enough to actually realize what you were trying to get through my skull, you probably wouldn’t have been able to get rid of me. Well, I’m beginning to know now.
The man I knew was a hard man. I had no comprehension of why. You and I weren’t that close in a lot of ways, which I blamed on you. I took that hardness to mean I didn’t measure up, and have spent a great deal of my life trying to prove I could. But that was my mistake.
What I was too inexperienced to know is that no one can work with tools they don’t have. You get what’s in your kit, and that’s that. You can acquire other tools along the way, but it’s futile to blame a man for what he doesn’t possess.
Pop, you grew up before the Great Depression. To be honest, I can’t even imagine. One of seven siblings, your mother died giving birth to your eighth. You were five years old. That left you to be raised by a stern, outnumbered shopkeeper. I never met my paternal grandfather. Those who knew him said I wouldn’t have wanted to. I’m not so sure about that.
Remember that Memorial Sunday at the cemetery in Tom Bean? I saw a name on a headstone I didn’t recognize. I asked who Hebert was. I had no idea that he was your eighth sibling, and that he died one day while you two were playing in the barn. Fell into a cotton seed bin while you were watching him. Suffocated. He was three. That was the only time you ever cried in front of me, and you cried on my shoulder. You were almost 70. I was eighteen.
That’s how old you were when the Crash of ’29 arrived. I was an adopted child of the 60s and 70s, a Boomer product of a standard of living that had tripled since the war you helped fight. What was I to know of the world you knew, and the fear within you that never seemed contented? What did I grasp of how fragile things truly are?
You and Mom married in 1949. You, nearly 40. She, just shy of 30. Just after you returned from your honeymoon and started your life in Fort Worth, the great flood of that year chased you from your first home together – and took everything but each other. Looking back, you were always starting over. After the first three miscarriages, then Stephen’s still birth, and the realization that Susan would never be “normal”. I was your hope.
Mom told me later she only saw you cry once. It was upon learning that Susan’s profound physical challenges would be lifelong. The look on your faces the day you and Mom buried her still haunts me. How you managed as well as you did astounds me. Sometimes I took your hardness as unjust or unwarranted. That was before I had children of my own, and tried to see the world through your eyes.
Retreating to your garage office out back, where you managed your small advertising specialties business, I never stopped to think what might have driven you so. Someone pointed out to me later that while your generation revolutionized America upon your return from Europe, the cost of what was buried revealed itself in a tripling of the heart attack rate. People like you won the war, came home, went to work, and bore their pain in secret – but it could not stay hidden.
Most of you never talked about what you did, or modestly insisted you were only doing your job. You insisted you were a clerk, and rarely ever mentioned the war. Even when we watched Victory at Sea together. You’d start the program talking and finish in silence. After you took me to see Patton, I was confused. For a film you really wanted me to see, you surely didn’t want to talk about it afterwards. Ten years after you died, I decided to write the Department of Defense to see if I could request your service records. They do that for relatives and survivors, and they sent me yours. You were not a clerk.
Had they not also sent your medals and commendations, I doubt I would’ve believed the documents that stated you’d earned them. At no point in knowing you did you ever mention medals or commendations. At no point in knowing you had you ever mentioned London, The Blitz, Spean Bridge, or Normandy. All I knew was that you were extraordinarily fond of anything British, and that your Tom Bean twang had long ago been forsaken for something that sounded a lot more like a brogue. I was not allowed to say “Uh” or “You know” in your presence. And it turned out your medals weren’t the only thing you may have ommitted.
I found that photo of Olive. It was taken in Bishop’s Stortford, probably over a weekend while on leave. Mom had worked at Fort Hood, and she’d fallen in love with one of the boys there before he was killed at Omaha. She talked of another soldier she thought she would surely marry who was wounded so badly that he couldn’t have children. He told he couldn’t do that to her, and they never saw each other again. She spoke of each with great regret. You two didn’t meet until a blind date years later, so the idea that other people might have been in your lives wasn’t strange.
And then I found that wedding band.
No, I don’t know the whole story. I would like to. I wonder what happened to Olive, and what she meant to you. If I could find her family, I would tell them that up until he died there was a Yank who never forgot her. One of these days when I do know the whole story, I expect I will understand you even more. What I understand now is that it seems like every day, you get a little bit taller. I look around at my challenges and obstacles, and tend to moan about them. Then I think about the things I know that you lived through – and pause to contemplate the things that I only learned later. The things I’m still learning.
Seventy-years ago today you were dodging German bullets and artillery. What did you see that you never spoke of, so far from home? What were the things that made you into the man I knew? All my friends learned to hunt with their dads. It puzzled me then, but I have a far better understanding now of why you never taught me – nor even allowed a firearm in our house. I look at the photos of you when you were young. Then I look at the photos of you later. After the years took their toll. Younger people don’t usually look, and don’t see the miles if they do – but I am older now, and I can. I wish I had noticed them then.
It’s ironic how I faulted you once for things I did not understand. Like I’ve told you many times, I expect to spend the first hundred years in heaven issuing apologies – mostly to you and Mom. Kids of my own taught me what I had to have put you through. Having just said that, I almost chuckled. Whenever I used to say “I love you”, you’d always respond with “Then do what I say.” Right now you’re saying no apology necessary, son. Like whenever I tell you I wish you were still here, because as usual, I need something. Even though you’ve been gone now more than thirty years.
And you say “I am here. I’m in you.”
Knowing what I believe you know now, I wonder what what you think of what we’ve done with the world you help save. I doubt Sergeant Dean is pleased. You are a complex man who once had many biases, but that changed as you got older and death got closer. One thing I’m sure that hasn’t changed is what you always used to insist on: leave it better than you found it. You did. I have doubts about whether my generation will. About whether I have.
I guess the thing I wanted to say today is that the years have taught me that no one is solely a measure of the visible. Each individual is also a product of moments never shared and secrets never told. Some stories come with hidden chapters, and it’s not until you read them that you really understand the book. So I’m thinking of you today, Pop, even more than I usually do.
In gratitude for the man I knew, but in awe of the man I’m still getting to know.