Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

Memorial Day

If I appear cynical that’s because I am- but at least in this paragraph I’m not being cynical for my generation- the Baby Boomers- that’s another chapter I certainly won’t ignore.

No, in this case my cynicism is peppered with an outrage of what I would define as sort of personal endearment for the generation of the Depression and World War Two.

The truth is that they did the work. We are losing them at an alarming rate-our parents, our grandparents. Our aunties and favorite uncles who, before their health became an issue, marched in the parades and remembrances of VE day, VJ day, and always had their hand over their hearts when saying the Pledge Of Allegiance. The vets who rarely spoke of the war in graphic terms, but made no secret of the fact that they thanked God for the outcome. Then, if some of us listened very carefully, there were the quiet vets. The wounded ones. The scarred ones. The quiet old guy at the V.F.W. flipping burgers and dogs with one hand because that’s all he had to work with. Or the guys like my Dad, a ‘Coastie’ who, after piloting the landing craft in every invasion from North Africa to Normandy, could scarcely look at the ocean surf rolling in and not see red foam in his mind’s eye. These dads and uncles were the ones who drank.


These are the uncles and brothers who never developed healthy sleep patterns after returning. These are the guys who started out jolly at the family picnic and after a few beers began to brood silently or not so silently. They, if they told war stories at all, would have to be drunk to the point of reliving it all. These are the men, and yes, women that were utterly inscrutable to me as a small boy; but as a man I find their sacrifices have become an object of sharp focus.

-A little vignette from my callow youth I have told many times because it so affected me..

     In 1972,two days after my eighteenth birthday, I went north from Florida to Rhode Island to visit my grandparents in East Providence- Riverside- Rhode Island. It was in mid-June and still hot. I had returned from Europe a few months earlier with what would, over the course of the next few years, become a drinking problem all my own. Being young I still believed in the myth of the bawdy, jolly, lusty sailor who drank and romanced women and life away with an endearing abandon. My father drank. My father’s father drank, and though I knew he was in ill-heath because of a fifty-year tobacco habit, I looked forward to tipping a few with him at the Riverside Social Club, a small private drinking establishment the old guy would disappear to whenever the stress of family life became overwhelming. At the time I was not aware of how often that was. My father was dead by that time so my grandfather would surely be willing to be a stand-in for this mythical male rite of passage. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and I was finishing off a slice of one of Aunt Dot’s blueberry pies when I announced my intentions to him in full voiced bravado so that my grandmother and aunt would hear.

“ Grampa, I’m eighteen now- and I’m old enough.

Lets you and I go get a brew together, eh?”

    My grandfather, who was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and thus unable to smoke his beloved pipe seemed to consider the idea fondly by arching his eyebrows and chuckling a bit. I think he not only liked my audacity, but welcomed it. Like a swooping sea gull my grandmother appeared, her eyes flashing, her finger wagging using her no-nonsense New England school marm tone.

“ George- don’t you dare bring that boy out to go drinking. I absolutely forbid it!”

My Grandpa paused to inhale a burst of oxygen before giving her a reply. I noticed he scarcely looked up at her before doing so.

“ He ain’t a boy no longer, Emily. He’s legal age.”

My grandmother moved directly into my grandfather’s field of vision.

“ If you go to the Sportsman Club and start drinking, don’t either one of you come home expecting supper! I won’t do a thing for you George- don’t you corrupt this child!”

    Grandmother Emily Donovan Brayton slapped the table top and moved eye to eye with my grandfather, who by this time had what might best be described as a half-amused half- steely glint in his eye. He had that well worn facial expression of a man long married and made miraculously and selectively deaf by the experience.

“ George!;” she rejoined,” I forbid it!”

I saw them lock eyes for what seemed like an eternity, but in actuality only must have been a pair of seconds.

“ Jon-boy, go ‘n fetch my hat.”

“ I’ll lock the door, George!”

“’s the blue one with the anchor.”

     I remember half carrying my grandpa down the hill through narrow streets, his lungs wheezing from the emphysema in the early afternoon heat.We didn’t talk much. I knew it would be a strain on him to answer. By the time we finished the walk to the bar, all of three blocks I noticed with some alarm that all the color had drained from his face.His pallor was gray and his lips had become tinged in the blue shade of exertion. We arrived at a shabby little one story white wood frame building on the waterfront.

The sign read :
Riverside Sportsman Club- Private- Members Only.

I remember thinking at the time that Rhode Island working class architecture was not much to get excited about. Everything seemed small and cramped compared to the southern architecture I’d grown up with. The interior was not much either. No windows. Fluorescent lights. A few neon bar lights were placed above the Formica tables in a vain attempt at decoration. There were blue plastic chairs for seating and cheap vinyl squares on the floor. For ambience, bathed the interior in a pink glow of a Budweiser sign, were some girly calendars from the 1940’s. Big meaty busty women in bathing suits slyly holding wrenches, jackhammers and fishing nets. The jukebox played a warped mix of warped Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman singles. It was the quintessential blue-collar old guy bar where regular guys went to escape their wives and get quietly soused after work,to fend off the dreariness of harsh winter and retirement. The six or seven old fellas that were in there in the middle of the afternoon looked up none to fondly as I, a baby-faced hippie kid with hair halfway down to my ass, walked in with my grandpa. One of them let go the zinger;
“ She’s a little young ferya ain’t she George ?”
My Grandpa laughed with them and looked at me in masked amusement. I gamely smiled back.

“ Naw, he’s Sonny’s boy just up fer his first beer with the grown men.” He coughed as I helped him to the barstool and leaned his cane against the wall.
“ It’s not exactly my first, it’s just my most legal.”
“ You sayin’ he’s a full eighteen then, George?” asked the barkeep looking me over with suspicion, “ and he’s gotta card, then eh?” “ Gwan’n show Kenny yer card boy, before he gets his ass in a sling.”
“ Right here, I said pulling out my wallet and my driver’s licence. “ "Flarida, eh? You all the way up from Flarida ?”, remarked Kenny the barkeep as he handed me back my card. “ I didn’t know Sonny lived down south George, I thought he was in Asia or somewheres. Whatta yah have theyuh, young fella?” “ Bud is good. Bud good Grampa?”

My grandfather didn’t answer, he just waved his hand, nodded and coughed. The barkeep either forgot or never knew that Sonny, my Dad, was killed two years before in a small plane accident in the mountains on the big island of Luzon . Grandpa George Edgar wasn’t the talkative type. He wasn’t known to talk much about his family. Grandpa was quiet as he sipped his beer. Finally he said;

“ Y’oughta be signed up.” “What,Grampa?’

“ Fer the service..if yer eighteen y’oughta be signed up fer the service.”

Kenny the barkeep seemed to agree. His eyes turned on me as he filled a glass of draft beer for another old-timer who sat eavesdropping in the shadows. I noticed a tattoo on Kenny the barkeeps arm. He was Navy. I thought it prudent to shrug and gulp my beer and control my urge to say something inappropriately hippy-smart-ass.

“ You kids today don’t know nuthin. Y’oughta be in service..we all wuz. Yer fahthuh wuz Coast Guard in World Wah Two, did ye know that?”
“ Yeah, I know Grampa.”

Grandpa George Edgar amazed me by downing his entire glass of beer. He looked at me silently and motioned for two more beers. He pulled his pipe out of his coat pocket and lit it.

“ Theyud have tuh cut her hair ta get in the service, hah,George!” offered the old feller to the left. My Grandfather chuckled and coughed in spasms. I was more concerned with my grandfather’s coughing fit than I was irritated with a couple old Yankees rednecking me about my long hair. There wasn’t anything aggressive about it, just a bunch of old lifers giving me my medicine.

By the time we had downed two more brews apiece I was beginning to get dizzed and I could tell Grandpa was feeling a good deal less pain. He began a somewhat emotional narrative of his two years as a Seabee in The Solomon Islands during the Pacific campaign. How they lost men to mines and sniper fire. How the Japs had committed suicide rather than surrender. How much he loathed the climate. All this punctuated by long gargling bouts of coughing as he tried to inhale the pipe smoke that had so ruined his lungs.

“ Goddamned Japs..nevuh will buy a goddamned Jap cah, Jap radio..none of that round heah! No kraut cahs neithuh.”

I had never heard my Grandfather curse like that before. He rarely if ever spoke emotionally about anything. The beer was loosening his tongue.

“ None’a you young smart asses know what goin’ta war wuz like, we wuz fightin’ fer this country heah, see? Now none’uh yah kids give a shit! You don’t wanna serve yer country.”

The effects of the beer and the harangue were beginning to make me a little bold.

“ So I gotta go to Viet Nam to serve my country?”

“ Hell, yes boy- Y’go where yer country sends ya. Y’do yer duty!” intoned Kenny from behind the bar. My Grandfathers coughing kept him from being able to speak.

“ So all you guys are World War Two vets?’

“ Goddamned right..I was Navy first mate on a class-B destroyer in the battle of Midway. Jess wuz on Wake Island, wudden’t it Jess?”

“ Supply ship, whole goddamned way through;.”answered the old fella on the stool. “ None’na you kids know a goddamned thing about goin’ta war an serving yer country. Yuh juss wanna smoke marijuana and chase them hippy girls. You don’t know nuthin.”

I remember having a moment of clarity through the beer haze. I remember just blurting it out-

“Isn’t that what all you guys fought for? I mean, so I wouldn’t know what war was like? I mean, right Grampa? Didn’t you guys suffer like that so dumb-ass kids like me would never know? Wasn’t that the idea?”

Grandpa George Edgar looked up at me from his bar stool. The others in the bar grew silent. Only Sinatra sang. The old fella who sat at the barstool rose slowly to leave. It wasn’t until he stepped into the full light and faced me that I noticed his left sleeve was pinned at the shoulder.

“He’s gotta point they-uh, George.”

There was a moment of silence as the old salts looked one to another and nodded slightly.

“ Yey-uh.. he’s Sonny’s boy alright. He’s got Sonny’s head on’im. “
   The beer was on the house the rest of the afternoon and I got plastered as the old guys told stories and ribbed me and my Grandpa with good natured slights and observations.
    My grandfather carried me the three blocks home. There we were the two of us, drunk as skunks weaving our way back to Middle Street laughing and cursing like midnight lunatics. When we returned home,there was no supper waiting. My Aunt Dot helped me up to the second story room and took my shoes off before I passed out in what had been my father’s childhood bed.
“ Shame on the both of you,” she said in a mock tone, her eyes gleaming in amusement.
“ Your Grandma doesn’t approve of drinkin’.”
    The last time I saw Grandpa George Edgar was in 1978. He had taken up permanent residence at the Veterans Hospital in Providence. This was as much out of choice as it was for treatment of his lung disease. George and Emily had, as I came to find out, lived more years apart as they did together. Divorce was less of an option to old folks like that. This was undoubtedly was due to my Grandmother’s latent Catholicism, which though unpracticed, held firm in several aspects.
     Grandpa George Edgar looked gaunt and sick when last I saw him alive. He shared a room with a Marine Vet of WW1 who was attached to an IV and was intubated with a plastic hose down his throat. He had been in a coma like that for months. Grandpa George Edgar didn’t seem to mind his roommate. He liked it quiet, he told me. The Veterans Hospital was a sad shabby institution full of forgotten old guys living their last days out in rusty beds or in shadowy game rooms playing Parcheesi or Monopoly with dog-eared cards and watching game shows on old black and white T.V.
     These were our heroes; creaky old men who smelled of medicine, existing like ghosts in dingy halls that smelled of Pine-Sol and Vapo-Rub. In the post Viet Nam era damn little was spent to upgrade these places. Paint peeled on the ceilings and walls. The asbestos composition tile floors were chipped and stained by years of industrial cleaners and waxed over body fluids. Military life was not rewarded by public opinion; but Rhode Island being one of the more patriotic states, always made sure that above each door was a paper Old Glory and decent holiday dinners for the fellas.

God Bless America. It’s the least we can do.


lois w said...

Jon - A great Memorial Day tribute everyday I pass one of the old veterans passing out poppies on Memorial Day - I am saddened that their spirit of service will vanish as they pass on. Lois

Therapy Cat said...

Well done, MTF