[From November 1, 2020: Hero-sized hole.]
When I was a kid — maybe 6 or 7, although the exact age escapes me — I was on a fishing trip with my grandfather and uncle on Lake Erie. It was a typical part of my childhood summers, spending time on the lake on various trips to my grandparents’ cabin, but this specific trip was unlike any other. We’d gone quite far out on the lake that day, always in search of what my grandfather had heard was the perfect spot for perch fishing, when the sky suddenly darkened. Normally, at even the hint of bad weather, especially with a grandkid on board, my grandfather would immediately pull anchor and we’d head in — “better safe than sorry,” he’d always say — but this storm was quicker than his instinct and, before we knew it, we were engulfed in the middle of the worst thunderstorm any of us had experienced. Eerily dark as night with rain coming down in sheets, we couldn’t even see the edge of our own boat, much less any other boats that might also be on the water, scrambling for safety, too. We knew we were far away from the shore in any direction, so my grandfather took charge and instructed us to “hold on,” as we moved through the angry waves faster than I ever imagined that otherwise placid fishing boat could. Soon, though, the boat‘s engine would stall, leaving us stranded in the choppy waves and torrential rain. I told my grandfather that I was scared, so he looked me in the eye and told me that we were going to be fine, but “just in case,” I should crawl down into the storage area under the front benches where we normally kept the life jackets. “It will be quieter there,” he insisted. “You’ll be fine.” Years later, when my grandfather would tell the story of that day, something he did somewhat frequently, he’d add that when I told him how scared I was, he didn’t have the heart to tell me that he was, too. The odd thing is that I don’t have a vivid memory of what happened after that. I know the storm eventually passed, then we were able to restart the boat and make it home, but the vividness of the experience stopped when my grandfather told me that everything was going to be fine. It was no longer an issue because I simply believed him… believed IN him. While I know my youthful summers were full of a lot more, far less memorable, boating adventures with my grandfather after the bout with the storm, as an adult, without him, I’ve had little desire to ever set foot on a boat or go back out on the water.
In the fall of 2007, my grandfather came to my office one day in September with a handful of papers covered with his handwriting. He asked me if I would help him with something, “type it all up,” he said and then motioned at my computer. This wasn’t necessarily an unusual request, as I’d gotten used to helping him organize and make sense of everything from lists of my grandmother’s medications to calendars with all of the grandkids’ birthdays listed in order, so he’d never forget to send a card. I knew this time was different, though, because he shut my office door before making the request, a sign that this was going to be something more important.
Apparently, a local newspaper reporter had contacted him, looking to write a Veterans Day story about the remaining vets of World War II, so my grandfather had taken it upon himself to write down a chronological diary of his various experiences in the war. Over the years, I think all of us had asked him about the war at one point or another (although I’m embarrassed to admit, not as often as I should have), but he never really gave us much information, always instead merely insisting that it had been the kind of thing nobody should have to endure, much less talk about. I think part of me assumed his reluctance to speak about any of it might have been because he had blocked a lot of it out, a trauma response to the horrors of war. But the papers in his hand that September day made it clear that he had forgotten nothing.
My grandfather had specific dates, locations, and the daily number of fellow servicemen lost all listed in detail. As I began to read through his hieroglyphic-like handwriting, I’d ask him for clarification or more information as I attempted to turn his scrawled notes into a narrative that was still in his voice. It was soon clear that he could remember even the smallest details as he recounted the various invasions, occasionally having to pause or “take a break” when the tears in corners of his eyes would begin to betray him. You see, one of my grandfather’s main tasks in the Navy was to take small landing boats of Marines directly in to the heart of battle, knowing full well that he was escorting at least some of them to their death, only to then transport the wounded and dead on the return trip, often under the threat of enemy fire. For each event he recounted — being anchored next to the USS Mount Hood when an explosion killed its entire crew, the invasion of Iwo Jima, or taking aboard the 1st Division of Marines for the invasion of Okinawa on Easter Sunday — he remembered not just the order of events or the day’s death toll, but the smell in the air and the haunting sounds of his buddies dying.
This week, as I was tasked with writing my grandfather’s obituary, I remembered the stories he told me thirteen years ago and the notes I’d taken. I also remembered how disappointed he was when the newspaper ended up not using his full recollections, so he told me to just get rid of my notes. (Thank god I didn’t.) I also have been thinking a lot about my childhood out on the lake with my grandfather, the way he’s told that story of us on the boat that day in the storm a hundred times, while barely mentioning the horrors that took place on those boats in the war. I’ve thought about the way he so convincingly assured me that we were going to be fine when I was scared, while wondering how scared he must have been in those landing boats full of wounded and dead. Somehow, until this very week, it never occurred to me that the same man who experienced such unspeakable horror on boats in the water off Japan would later see his fishing boat on the lake as the one place he could truly relax.
For all of the lessons he taught me over the years — the list is legion, I assure you — even in this, the week of his passing, I’m still learning. My lesson this week, as I stumble through this storm of loss and grief, is that where we once found tragedy, it’s possible, maybe even necessary, to also be able to find a bit of solace.
(I love you, grandpa.)