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Growing up, I only had one grandparent. My mom’s mother, who, for a variety of reasons, my dad wished to largely keep my sister and I away from, and who died when I was 7. I’m never quite sure of how much this difference from others my age affected me; on the one hand, there was little point in pining after something I had never had, but that didn’t always mean that seeing my peers bring grandparents to every significant school occasion, and excitedly report on all of the neat adventures they got to go on with them, didn’t sometimes rankle. That vague feeling of a missed connection has waned over the years, as I was lucky enough to be kind of informally ‘adopted’ by one of my best friend’s maternal grandfather, and to have been given a second family in a community of (mostly 50 and over) Benedectine monks. Still, questions linger, questions that I didn’t really feel comfortable posing to my parents past a certain age.
Most of them centered around my paternal grandfather, Charlie. My dad was always full of stories about his mother, who he compared to me (when I maybe wasn’t meant to be there) in terms of devotion and bullheadedness to his siblings, and the little aquatinace that I had with my maternal grandmother didn’t really leave me wanting more. My mom’s dad, meanwhile, had passed in the late ‘70s, and seemed a distant, somewhat painful memory even to her. Charlie, though, existed as a kind of aura around my dad’s stories, a cheerful and mischievous but indistinct presence who bore 7 kids and 50 something years of marriage with equanimity and good humor. The most I concretely knew about him was that he drove my grandmother crazy playing with a Rubix cube at the dinner table, ate peanut butter crackers by the thousands, and died a few months before I was born.
When it turned out that the monks I had, entirely independently, befriended also knew him well, my desire for answers deepened. (This was a shock to me both because the monastery is quite well hidden, about 35 minutes away from where I live, and because he was a devout Baptist, so the last place I expected the ghost of his memory to linger was in a Benedectine monastery). The most central part of the mystery to me was his service in WWII, enshrined on his gravestone but never mentioned among family. A picture of him in uniform hung proudly in our front hall, and when that (among so much else) was lost in a fire, his military days became the thing I wanted to most know about.
Moving to England, settling into university, and a thousand other concerns big and small consumed most of my time, and it took until this year for me to snatch away some time in this pursuit. Using the gravestone, a friend in the Air Force helped me to figure out some of the harder to parse military details so that I could submit a request to the NPRC for his service record. (Among other reasons, part of my reluctance in asking my dad was borne of the fact that I had a trip planned to Taiwan, and I wanted to make a stopover at one of the places in the Pacific Theatre that he had served and bring something back for him as a surprise). COVID threw that for a loop, and in the few days I took to recuperate from exams, still across the pond, I began to ponder the question more intently again. I don’t think I’m great at much, but I am a dab hand at making the most of online archives, even those with primitive search mechanisms. If I had poured through 11 years of Downing Street social diaries to mark every time Elie Kedourie ever visited for an NHD project in 11th grade, it shouldn’t be beyond my abilities to use a few web archives and online records collections to gather a lot of the relevant info that I desired.
Some strange part of me, as I started searching, wondered if Charlie had served in WWII at all. It wasn’t that I held some deeply repressed sense of anger or hostility towards him, more I think a fear of being disappointed. The image of his Pearl Harbor Survivors sticker, affixed to the window of the ‘97 Grand Marquis as one of my dad’s friends towed it away to be scrapped, crept into my mind as I had seen it as a small child. What if it was all a lie or at least a half-truth, did I have a duty to let my dad know? Was there a point in this venture, if it only created pain? If I only created pain?
A desire to know won out over dread at what I would find. Through a variety of means (local/state records, a free trial with Ancestry.com, archived newspapers, obituaries, etc), I was able to glean an outline of what I wanted to know.
He enlisted on the 8th of October, 1940, as a Marine. His battalion was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack in 1941, and he survived only because he had failed, that night, to return to his boat and decided instead to sleep on a beach. For the 6 years of his service, 1940-6, he was with the 4th Marine Defense Battalion and stationed all over the Pacific Theatre. In the course of his military years, he reached the rank of Staff Sergeant and took personal leave once, for a few days to marry my grandmother in Keene, New Hampshire. 52 years after he was honorably discharged from duty, in May of 1946, he died.
Seeing everything in black in white, the aged, cursive on enlistment and discharge papers, the sparse town marriage records, and the half unreadable obituary, brought a sense of relief. There had been no deception, and there could even be a sense of pride that he enlisted before being drafted, before Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor incident was a lovely reminder, meanwhile, of just how close I came to never existing.
Historians are trained to use and analyze information. While I like knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I’m also a firm student of my craft. This information meant something, I hadn’t just searched it out, where I usually found boredom in local and family history, for the sake of scratching the itch of fear of falsehood. I’m not the type to believe in reflected glory, my grandfather’s actions were his own, and while I could be proud to be related to someone who had done such admirable things, they were no guarantee of doing the same. The monks’ lavish praise for him only intensified this feeling. And as much as I agree with Charles Murray about the importance of genetics in personality, even the combination of having ¼ of his genes, and what he contributed to my own parenting through the excellent job he did raising my dad, was not predestination. It was a legacy, unspoken, to live up to.
In a lot of my college essays, I explained my choice to study history through the Catholic concept of vocation, as that which I loved and was created to do. By the same token, I’ve taken the legacy of quiet courage and duty into my heart the same way I might wear a saint’s medal, as a constant reminder of the standard which I have set myself to live up to. If, when I take my dying breath and depart for worlds unseen, I know that I have conducted a life in accordance with my faith, and with actions that have mirrored the values of the man I never knew, if I have lived life with purpose, courage, and selflessness, then I can die fulfilled.
We never met, grandpa, but you still provided me with something immeasurably precious.
*It has been an exceptionally awful few days, so while I intended to write something about Joseph Brodsky tonight, this what came out instead. Maybe in the midst of some despair, I knew subconsciously what I needed to be reminded of to press on ahead.Published in