Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Peanut Butter Crackers, Gunsmoke, and His Rubix Cube: In Search of My Grandfather

 

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 General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 14 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. JosePluma Thatcher

    I could see a novel springing just from the Pearl Harbor vignette. 

    Thanks!

    • #1
    • July 11, 2020, at 5:33 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    I could see a novel springing just from the Pearl Harbor vignette.

    Thanks!

    I’m glad you enjoyed. I have (preliminary) non-fiction book and article plans for when I finish a PhD, but maybe a novel too, someday. 

    • #2
    • July 11, 2020, at 5:53 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Clavius Thatcher

    Thank you for sharing this journey of discovery. My step father was shot down over Italy and spent three years in Barth, Germany at Stalag Luft 1. I don’t remember enough stories, and he told few.

    • #3
    • July 11, 2020, at 6:02 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    One of my grandmothers died before I was born. My grandfather wasn’t available for the initial phone call announcing my birth. He was out proposing to his second wife, and didn’t get back until late. I don’t have many pictures of him, but my mom does. He moved to Arkansas for his retirement, then back up to northern Illinois after about ten years to be closer to Mom. We spent quite a few afternoons watching Cubs games together. One day when his second wife was in full rant about one thing or another from the kitchen, he reached up and put his pinkie in one ear and gave a twist, then he repeated the procedure with the other ear. Then he sat back with a smile. He turned down his hearing aids.

    Grandpap, my other grandfather, died about a year after I was born. Dad says “you two would have tickled each other.” I guess our senses of humor were similar. There is a picture that I am trying to track down of the two of us. He’s on his back in bed holding me over his stomach. Both of us have our heads thrown back, laughing at each other. Grandma died the year before I graduated high school. She called me “you scamp” a lot. One time though, she got so mad at me that she sent me out to cut a switch. I was gone about four hours, and came back with a tree limb as long as I was. She laughed and I got another “scamp” out of that.

    • #4
    • July 11, 2020, at 6:09 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  5. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thank you for sharing this journey of discovery. My step father was shot down over Italy and spent three years in Barth, Germany at Stalag Luft 1. I don’t remember enough stories, and he told few.

    From what I do remember my dad saying, his father never really volunteered much about his service either. It’s seems to have been common with that generation. 

    • #5
    • July 11, 2020, at 6:09 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. Clavius Thatcher

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Thank you for sharing this journey of discovery. My step father was shot down over Italy and spent three years in Barth, Germany at Stalag Luft 1. I don’t remember enough stories, and he told few.

    From what I do remember my dad saying, his father never really volunteered much about his service either. It’s seems to have been common with that generation.

    His career at the CIA probably contributed. 

    • #6
    • July 11, 2020, at 6:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    One of my grandmothers died before I was born. My grandfather wasn’t available for the initial phone call announcing my birth. He was out proposing to his second wife, and didn’t get back until late. I don’t have many pictures of him, but my mom does. He moved to Arkansas for his retirement, then back up to northern Illinois after about ten years to be closer to Mom. We spent quite a few afternoons watching Cubs games together. One day when his second wife was in full rant about one thing or another from the kitchen, he reached up and put his pinkie in one ear and gave a twist, then he repeated the procedure with the other ear. Then he sat back with a smile. He turned down his hearing aids.

    Grandpap, my other grandfather, died about a year after I was born. Dad says “you two would have tickled each other.” I guess our senses of humor were similar. There is a picture that I am trying to track down of the two of us. He’s on his back in bed holding me over his stomach. Both of us have our heads thrown back, laughing at each other. Grandma died the year before I graduated high school. She called me “you scamp” a lot. One time though, she got so mad at me that she sent me out to cut a switch. I was gone about four hours, and came back with a tree limb as long as I was. She laughed and I got another “scamp” out of that.

    My dad says the “you would have tickled each other” thing about my sister and his dad. It’s an interesting thing, to see what your parents see of their own in you. His mother seems to be the one I get compared to the most, in terms of stubbornness, religious devotion, and the ability to seemingly be constantly working on something. (She was also like me in not wanting kids, but ended up having seven; I could live without emulating that). From the bits and pieces I’ve heard over the years, she seemed to have had exceptionally poor relationships with her two daughters, so some guilty part of me is a little okay with having been born after she died. 

    • #7
    • July 11, 2020, at 6:18 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    The grandparents I would have liked to have known died before I was born. My mother’s father was a real character. One story that has come down was about the pet snake he carried in his pocket.He worked for the railroad as an executive. When WWII came around, he was in his late forties and much more valuable running the railroad on the home front.

    My father’s mother was supposed to be a very loving and intelligent woman. (She was a GS-13 running a governmental computer lab when she died in 1963. That may not seem like much today, but back in 1963 for a woman…)

    My father’s father died when I was six. I have a few memories. He does not seem to have been a terribly pleasant man. One of my memories was when I was three and he spanked me for wanting to stay at his house. When my mother had emergency surgery, my father asked if he would watch the kids. He replied, “I raised my kids.” (Fact check: He only had two, and one died at four days old. As for how much he was involved in my father’s childhood, questionable.) He had started having heart attacks when he was about 37. He retired around age 55, and died at 60. In WWII, he taught electronics to Chinese army personnel, so they could maintain radios and other communications devices. One of the few things my father had as a legacy of his father that I remember when growing up was a Chinese-English dictionary and an old tube radio.

    The last was my mother’s mother. She was the only one who got old. She lived several states away, and I didn’t see her often. I vaguely remember about four times when she came to us or we went to visit her and the rest of my mother’s family. It was a few days each time. I might have been ten at the most the last time, although the last could have been when I was six or eight. She was a rather unpleasant person. She died when I was fourteen. Since I really hadn’t known her and only have vague memories, it didn’t hit me very hard.

    You’re not the only one in the situation of not having had much grandparental interaction. At least you have some interesting stories of Charlie.

    • #8
    • July 11, 2020, at 9:54 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  9. Patrick McClure Coolidge

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    She was also like me in not wanting kids, but ended up having seven; I could live without emulating that).

    Your life KW. But my kids are my biggest blessing. I was scared to have any, but after one I wanted more. Not all will feel that way. But do not close your heart to a family.

    • #9
    • July 12, 2020, at 7:15 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  10. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Patrick McClure (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    She was also like me in not wanting kids, but ended up having seven; I could live without emulating that).

    Your life KW. But my kids are my biggest blessing. I was scared to have any, but after one I wanted more. Not all will feel that way. But do not close your heart to a family.

    Thanks, but I think in my case it probably won’t change. I spent most of my childhood helping my parents raise my Downs Syndrome younger sister, and I think that exhausted any maternal instinct I may have. I’ve also never wanted kids, even when I was much younger; my closest female friend is so excited (and scared) to have kids, and I’ve grown to recognize that where she has fear borne of wanting to do everything right in that step of her life, I just feel dread at the prospect of children. Some medical issues also make it both difficult and even more unenticing to me. I’m incredibly grateful for the family and friends that I do have, kids of my own just won’t be part of that picture for me.

    • #10
    • July 12, 2020, at 9:51 AM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Arahant (View Comment):

    My father’s mother was supposed to be a very loving and intelligent woman. (She was a GS-13 running a governmental computer lab when she died in 1963. That may not seem like much today, but back in 1963 for a woman…)

    My father’s father died when I was six. I have a few memories. He does not seem to have been a terribly pleasant man. One of my memories was when I was three and he spanked me for wanting to stay at his house. When my mother had emergency surgery, my father asked if he would watch the kids. He replied, “I raised my kids.” (Fact check: He only had two, and one died at four days old. As for how much he was involved in my father’s childhood, questionable.) He had started having heart attacks when he was about 37. He retired around age 55, and died at 60. In WWII, he taught electronics to Chinese army personnel, so they could maintain radios and other communications devices. One of the few things my father had as a legacy of his father that I remember when growing up was a Chinese-English dictionary and an old tube radio.

    The last was my mother’s mother. She was the only one who got old. She lived several states away, and I didn’t see her often. I vaguely remember about four times when she came to us or we went to visit her and the rest of my mother’s family. It was a few days each time. I might have been ten at the most the last time, although the last could have been when I was six or eight. She was a rather unpleasant person. She died when I was fourteen. Since I really hadn’t known her and only have vague memories, it didn’t hit me very hard.

    You’re not the only one in the situation of not having had much grandparental interaction. At least you have some interesting stories of Charlie.

    I wonder if there is a generation gap, in terms of those who know/knew most of their grandparents for a significant amount of time vs. those who didn’t, correlated to rising American life expectancies. My parents had me when they were older, so I was always the odd one out grand parent wise among my peers at school (also why my dad, who went gray in his 30s, was mistaken for our grandparent more than once). I understand the situation with your maternal grandmother, too. Mine was, by all accounts, an alcoholic who had miserable relationships with all 4 of her kids, and (deservedly) earned by dad’s eternal loathing by arguing that they should have aborted or adopted away my disabled younger sister. How charming. 

    • #11
    • July 12, 2020, at 10:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Arahant Member

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I wonder if there is a generation gap, in terms of those who know/knew most of their grandparents for a significant amount of time vs. those who didn’t, correlated to rising American life expectancies.

    Eh, it’s a factor, but not the be-all end-all. Most of the life expectancy changes are from the low end. More children live to be adults. There have always been people who lived to be 80, 90, or 100. Peter McQueen was about a hundred when he died in 1820. His father supposedly lived to be 125. The big change in life expectancy was that instead of having twelve children and three living to adulthood, people might have three children who all live to adulthood.

    The generation gap can have an effect. My mother was born when her parents were 46 and 41. My father was born when his parents were 24. Both grandfathers lived to the same age, but I somewhat knew my father’s father, since he was younger when Dad was born. My mother’s father died when she was 14. On the other hand, my mother had a sister 21 years older, and her daughter, my mother’s niece, got her grandfather until she was twelve. On the other hand, it was my mother’s mother who lived the longest in my lifetime, even though she was 41 when Mother was born.

    My father’s mother died when she was 53. Her parents were part of the post-war (War of Northern Aggression) boom generation, born in 1872. Because of being born late in a boom generation, it was harder for them to get established, and they didn’t marry until they were thirty-five. But they lived to be 88 and 80, so they saw their (surviving) grandchildren grow up and in Gramps’ case, even saw his first great-grandchild born.

    My father never knew his paternal grandfather at all. The man died when my grandfather was only a few months old. He was 24 and was shot to death. His father lived to be 85, and was alive until my father, his great-grandson, was three.

    That generation gap has always been a factor, but not always the main factor in how well people get to know their grandparents.

    • #12
    • July 12, 2020, at 10:42 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A great deal depends on listening to the stories that one’s older relatives tell. My family is full of storytellers. What is most entertaining is to hear them tell each other the stories. You hear various versions, ala RashomonYou hear the most amazing lies, with all of them laughing at each other.

    “That’s not how it happened …”

    • #13
    • July 12, 2020, at 10:56 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A case in point is my four aunts and the weekly assignment to clean the chicken coop. The two middle daughters did all the work, they both agree. The youngest was too small to be of any help (outraged squawks at this point) and the eldest (the others agree) was “inside putting on makeup and talking to boys on the telephone.”

    • #14
    • July 12, 2020, at 11:01 AM PDT
    • 4 likes