My Dad sat behind the bar on the tall wicker stool, the same perch where Bud usually reigned, surrounded by his orchids and a bevy of photographs, trophies and travel souvenirs collected over a life nine decades in the making. An oil painting of some snowy West Virginia street hung behind him next to a cheeky bar sign from the Second World War. Family photos of varying vintages adorned the walls above a commemorative hole-in-one golf ball keeping company with several gifted bottles of fine whiskey on the bar shelf below.
That bar was a familiar place to gather at my grandparents’ home in the desert. We almost always ended up there at the end of the night, arranged around the granite counter in mismatched chairs, blissfully full from dinner but always game to solve the world’s problems through debate, banter and many glasses of wine. Bud loved to stoke a good political argument, counting on those after-dinner drinks to exaggerate and fuel ideological differences. On this night, a week before Thanksgiving, the mood was more solemn, but it still seemed the appropriate place to come together.
Dad poured us each a glass of scotch from a favorite imported bottle, and we toasted to a husband, a father and a grandfather. It was sometime after midnight, and my Grandpa Bud had just passed away, slipping peacefully into the night, at home, as he had wanted. The family was there. We had all had the chance to say goodbye, and he was ready, content for his story to end after ninety-two good years.
At the time, I wasn’t ready to write about him, about what his death – what he – meant to me. It was too soon, too emotional… I couldn’t find the words. I suppose I still don’t completely know what to say. But he is one of two combat veterans who I love, and I’ve been thinking about him today.
Grandpa Bud – my Dad’s father – served as a bomber pilot in Italy during World War II. He married my grandmother, Ruth, with a twelve-dollar ring before he deployed, and there was no return date. He was lucky to return; pilots had a high casualty rate and very few reached their mission quota before the war ended. He didn’t talk often about the details of his time in the service; mostly funny stories of soldiers getting into trouble on R&R. There was always a pragmatism around the way he spoke of the war, simply that it was his duty as an American to serve, and so he did. Today, when most Americans aren’t directly affected by war or conflict and don’t always fully understand the commitment that soldiers and military families make, it’s hard to completely imagine their generation’s sense of shared sacrifice.
Beyond his military service, his greatest legacy will be one of generosity. Being the only grandchildren, my brother and I were bestowed upon a special affection, and were blessed with education, travel and opportunity. He and my Grandma took our family around the world, believing that travel and cultural experience were just as much as part of a well-rounded education as great teachers and schools. They had both come from humble beginnings in West Virginia and talked often of the importance of working hard. Of public service and giving back through volunteer work and charity. The lengths that having a little gumption and hope will take you. And always being thankful for our many blessings. I learned that our place in the world was one of privilege and shouldn’t ever be taken for granted.
Gathered around that family bar (and any place, really), Grandpa loved to talk about those many travels, particularly the gourmet and exotic dishes we tried along the way, regularly recounting strange menu choices and memorable meals. His very favorite story involved a calves foot and pig’s ear salad that his precocious, only granddaughter ordered at a restaurant in France as a young teenager. He also taught me the joys of peanut butter straight from the jar, and always took an emergency supply with him when traveling overseas. I really might never have learned to love food (and cooking, and eating) the way that I do had it not been for those family meals, and all the accompanying memories.
So in the midst of Memorial Day BBQs and blowout department store sales, I want to say thank you to those who serve. Men like my Grandpa Bud. And my Honey. Who are so much more than their service, but should be remembered for it today.
And to all those who have died in service to our country, often unknown and unsung, your sacrifice will not be forgotten.