I often think about my granddad. But on Veterans Day, I think of him just about all day long.
His military service to his country was so unique and makes me so proud.
During World War II, my granddad was a middle school principal and math teacher, had 2 young daughters, and lived on a small farm he tended w/my grandma. Busy, yes, but like every American in the early 1940’s, he wanted to serve his county. Even though he was deemed too old for combat, but too young NOT to serve, he enlisted in the US Navy, trained, and became a Seabee. You see, my grandded had something special to offer our country.
It was my granddad’s official military order to teach un- or undereducated enlistees how to read and write so that they could complete their training. It was not unusual for kids to come from agricultural or backgrounds where formal education was not needed for them to thrive. Working a farm or a trade sometimes didn’t warrant formal education, especially if it meant losing valuable labor that kids could offer families who depended on them for survival. As you can imagine, at a time where every American male was needed in the war effort, the military saw its fair share of these kids. But they needed reading and math skills to navigate maps, read orders, interpret code, understand contracts, count money, etc.
So, in a makeshift austere “classroom” in Newport News, VA, and armed with a brand new government issued “curriculum”, called General Education Development (the FIRST GED!) my granddad taught the required classes. He worked with the young enlistees, helped them with their lessons above and beyond his call, preparing them for tests and seeing to it that each one “graduated”. Then, he’d chaperone them via train, that my granddad would describe as “rickety and drafty, not fit for livestock headed to slaughter”, sometimes thru blizzards and stopping for no apparent reason thru the cold nights, to Chicago, where the enlistees continued their training. My granddad would bid them good-bye, then head back to Newport News for another class.
Granddad always mentioned that the hardest part was saying goodbye to his students. He never articulated why, but I knew. He would write poetry years later, describing his guilt in preparing these kids with the freedom of education, to be used in combat to give the rest of us freedom. He knew that they might never be able to use what they’d worked for in his class here at home as free Americans. But they were willing to die so that the rest of us could.
Some of them did return, of course, and this is the amazing source of pride I hold inside for my granddad. He was part of the war effort that gave the young soldiers the skills they would need to make it in a post-war america. They came back able to read the newspaper, especially the “help wanted” section! They were able fill out job applications, and some even went on to colleges and universities. My granddad always told us how much brilliance he found in these young kids. “Their aptitudes were unlimited!”, he’d exclaim, as he’d pontificate about the importance of education, and how – in his rare political rants – education should be our nation’s top priority.
As a kid, my grandad’s Navy stories were my favorite, and certainly his, too. As he’d recall his service days and the gravity and importance of WWII in general, he would always point out that he was only doing his part, even though he never thought it was enough. Granddad was always quick to tell my brother and I that the entire nation sacrificed: “…your mom and Aunt Weezie gave up a dad for two years when they were little girls, your grandma was without her husband and held down the fort herself…”
Even in the last days of his life, when i would sit with him…anything we talked about would spark another navy story: “Oh that reminds me … back in the Navy…” and tell another wonderful story about his ‘mates, or his students. Sometimes Granddad would forget MY name, but he could remember every detail of his navy days with clarity that took me right inside the scene he described. I still get a chill thinking about the rickety, drafty train unfit for livestock headed to slaughter.
After my granddad passed away, my mom and I went though their house before putting it on the market. We decided to let their neighbors of 30+ years come in to get a memento, but first we’d get all the family stuff and (modest) heirlooms out. I took 3 things: Granddad’s Navy-issue peacoat (which i still have and still wear!); the stripes he earned for his service; and the last letter written from one if his fellow Seabees, Harley Hedge, with whom he’d stayed in touch for more than 50 years.
Harley’s letters were always signed: God bless you ‘mate.