Eighty-four years of life, they've seen everything in that time, the wonderful and the wonderfully horrific; the heroic and the catastrophic; the amazing and the gut-wrenching. Sixty-four plus years they have spent together. Its a fact that amazes me each and every day. Sixty-four years devoted to each other and the family that would bloom from their love: 5 Children, 17 Grandchildren, 11 Great-Grandchildren and spouses to go with those children and grandchildren.
So amazing to me is the journey of my grandparents that its hard to put into words, the depth and the length of their time on this planet together. Maybe its because they had 35 years to practice before I even showed up but it seemed whatever hard times they ever faced, they handled it with an undying love and dedication to each other. For most of my life, there was my grandfather, the biggest kid of us all, playing practical jokes, teasing us, making us laugh and scaring us all with the love that was never hardened by what I can only assume wasn't an easy life. And there was my grandmother scolding him for his boyish ways, playing both mother and wife at the same time. With a disapproving look and occasionally a smack on the arm for good measure, she'd let him know when she didn't approve of what he had just said or done and he'd stand there with his palms facing the sky and a shrug of his shoulders like a kid who had just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
I never have heard what my grandfather went through during World War II. The only stories I've ever heard are second-hand stories of what happened away from the battlefield. Of men diving off the ship to escape the oppressive heat of the Pacific, only to come aboard with giant Man of War Jellyfish covering their body. Jellyfish so big and hard to hold onto that the only way to rid the sailors of these beasts were to peel them off layer by layer with a meat cleaver, all the while the poison from their tentacles sucking the energy from the bodies of the infected sailor.
If these were the stories he felt he could share with his family, I don't know if I could ever imagine what he went through, what he saw, what he did that he has never felt he could talk about. The weaponry, the savagery of that war would never have been able to be played out on national television like images of Afghanistan and Iraq and Vietnam are shown to the country today.
I have a lot of great memories of my grandfather. He is a great man and in the absence of a father, he has always been there for me when I needed someone. He is always supportive of all of his grand children, no matter what we were into. He always showed us he'd be there for us.
My greatest memory of my grandfather happened at a time in my life when I could truly appreciate him and the moment while still living in the moment. In the summer of 2010, my grandfather wanted to enjoy his sisters 80th birthday with her in Long Island. My mother asked me if I could spend the day with my grandmother while she went with him for the party. I suggested that we flip it, and I go with him while my mom look after my grandmother. She agreed that it would probably be better that way and so on a blistering hot July day we drove the 3.5 hours to Long Island for his Sisters 80th Birthday. It was a surprise that my grandfather would be there and so the crowd at the party gathered around her and she turned to each person to acknowledge them and thank them for being there. As she turned to my grandfather to acknowledge him, he said in his usual chipper tone "Hello Dear" and it took her a moment to realize who was standing in front of her and as it dawned on her you could see a look of shocked joy cross her face. That stunned look made the entire trip worthwhile.
It was a miserably hot and steamy July day, and as we all sat outside, sweating, trying to stay cool and I was meeting all these family members I never even knew existed. They kept telling me what a great thing it was for me to have accompanied him all this way. I told at least of few of them, that it wasn't a big deal and if anything it was an honor and pleasure for me to do it, remembering all the times he had done things for me.
Sometimes in life you do things because you feel obligated to, sometimes you do it because you know its the right thing to do and most times in life you do things because its what you want to do. This is one of the few times in my life I can remember that all three happened in one event. The day up to this point will be one I'll never forget but what happened next went beyond anything I could ever comprehend.
When we left the party, we decided to go home via ferry. When we pulled into the yard waiting for the ferry we pulled up next to an SUV filled with a bunch of guys in their 50s and 60s. As I looked over at them, they seemed to be a bunch of over-aged party animals on their way back from a booze-filled weekend. And when one of them came strolling up to the window I wasn't exactly thrilled to see him there. "Baldis, what's that?" he said referring to my grandfathers license plate. "Thats me. I'm Baldis," replied my grandfather. "Oh, I thought you were making fun of bald people because you got a full head of hair" This conversation seemed to be going no where to me but my grandfather, one of the most personable people I have ever met, a skill which I wish he had passed on to me; kept talking with the man. The man asked us where we were coming from upon hearing that I had accompanied him to his sisters birthday party called me a "good boy" and then he explained that he and his buddies were on their way home from a funeral for a buddy of theirs from Vietnam.
When they began talking about what part of the military they were in, I was suddenly very interested, never having heard my grandfather discuss this topic before. I knew he was in the navy and stationed in the pacific but that was about the extent of my knowledge. In this five minute conversation I'd learned more than I'd ever known in 28 years My grandfather had been a gunner on a transport ship. These were the ships that carried soldiers and equipment ashore and he was responsible for giving them cover to get ashore. As the conversation went on, the gentleman looked at me and said "I hope you're proud to be this man's grandson, this is a damn good man." And as he did this he stuck out his hand to shake my grandfathers hand. I had always been proud of my grandfather but this kicked it up to a whole higher level. As the man walked back to his buddies, I thought that was the end of it. After calling him a "Nice Fella," my grandfather fell silent, looking out the car window at some distant point, maybe at some distant memory and all of sudden there were the other men from the funeral car. One by one they came up to the window and shook my grandfathers hand and told him they were honored and thanking him for what he had done for his country.
This is a memory that is etched in my brain forever and I hope to one day tell my kids this story and hope that it has even 1/1000th of the effect it had on me. Here were 5 or 6 men who had gone to Vietnam, seen war first hand, probably seen a part of hell I've never even imagined in my wildest nightmares and came back to a country that wasn't nearly as accepting to them as they had been to the veterans of World War II and despite that, these men had a taste of what my Grandfather had been through and felt the need to express their gratitude for what he and thousands just like him had gone through and done for their country. It was a moment that touched me at my very soul. It shocked and amazed me and even as I write it, I can feel my heart beating a little stronger, my hands and knees a little weak, my pride in my grandfather never stronger.
It's funny that this is such a strong memory of my grandfather because it is my grandmother who instilled in me such a pride in my country and my strength of patriotism. She is the reason that no matter what, I will always be supportive and appreciative of people that put their lives on the line for our country. She is the reason I feel so strongly about people removing their hats for the national anthem. She is the reason that just a few weeks ago, I got very upset with my sister-in-law when she was joking around and laughing during the playing of that anthem.
Its funny how so many "big" memories kind of fade from our consciousness and these "little" blips seem to stick with us forever. I have this vivid image of my grandmother talking about care of the flag one day at the table. How in her day, the flag was only to be posted on a flag from sunrise to sunset. How as time went by, it was okay to have a flag posted at night only if it was on a flag pole that was illuminated by a light strong enough to see it in its glory. I remember her striking the table with her fingers like she was pointing out these rules in some imaginary book in front of her.
She taught me to respect that flag and the thousands of people that have given their lives to protect what it stands for....I think its very appropriate that my grandmother is the person that taught me to understand and respect people like my grandfather...