My grandfathers were — and likely will always be — an enigma. They are both gone now, and their stories and memories are fading, as those who knew them fade. But on Memorial Day, I’m reminded of the strange, intriguing similarity that they share.
Both served, as almost all men of a certain age did, in World War II. But they both served in the background; they both served in a capacity that never brought either to the front. Neither claimed to have been in any battles or experienced the direct horrors of war.
My maternal grandfather — Melvin — was a complicated man. More specifically, he was complicated emotionally. He was often conflicted about his experiences in war, and also highly proud to have been a part of the effort. He served in the Army Air Corp, but spent most of his time as a mechanic. He served multiple years in the service during World War II, but the majority of his time, he spent it in the states.
He checked in young men as they came in to begin their service. Melvin was a country boy from rural Alabama whose parents were hardscrabble farmers. And the men he processed came from a lot of places that were not Alabama. But the names are what he remembered. He could pronounce all the odd names, all the hard ones.
He also had lots of stories, that he might or might not want to share … like hitch-hiking back to Marshall County or buying and selling cars from men being inducted.
His stories of war were a mishmash of experiences, like his brief time in England supporting the Army Air Corp as the war moved toward Germany in the last years of the war. His time in England left him with mixed feelings. He was somehow — even in his 70’s — still annoyed at the reaction of some of the English to the Yank’s presence, using a phrase that wasn’t original to him — that the Americans were “Overpaid, oversexed and over here.”
And he wasn’t laughing when he said it.
But he also loved and was proud of what they did. Proud of defeating Nazism. And the war changed him, in many ways. Between the war and growing up in the Depression, he was a Roosevelt Democrat, and a lifelong Democrat, with ideas about respecting people that echoed more progressive Christian beliefs (and perhaps experiences serving alongside people of different backgrounds and experiences).
And he loved visiting with and being a part of the reunion groups of the Air Corp. He did that until he died. He identified with that group of men.
My Grandfather Ray was Navy man. Somewhere in my home, I have his discharge papers. Like Melvin, Ray served, but his service ended at almost the time that World War II started.
Ray and Melvin actually knew each other. They both were from Marshall County, though Ray also spent time in other states, and had a bit more worldliness about him. He was more educated. But unfortunately for me, and for my memories of him, he died when I was young — 11 years old.
Ray was a large man. He wasn’t a tremendous talker, preferring to interject more than lead a conversation. If he had issues, if he had conflicts, he’d be much more likely to come out and tell you, but without passive-aggression. He’d just tell you like he saw it, and that was good enough.
He missed most of the war. He spent his time in the Navy working on ships, stationed in and near Mobile much of the time. The story, as it’s been told to me over the years (or at least the one I choose to remember), is something that seems indicative of the Campbells.
He was medically discharged after he hurt his back, carrying a generator … by himself. He’d served most of his time by then. But the image of him — stubborn, trying to do it alone, bull-headed — is something that speaks to me, something that seems all too believable.
He was also an interesting character, in that he wasn’t the type of man who sought the approval of the crowd. He could be a bit prickly, but he was also the type of man who did what he thought was right, regardless of what others might think.
Serving their country, I believe, changed them both, as it changes anyone. I like to believe that perhaps their service taught them about life and appreciation. I like to believe that the sacrifice they made played a part in them becoming men ahead of their time. More accepting of different people, different circumstances.
Now I’m watching “children” begin their time of service to our country. My own son-in-law now serves in the Air Force. I’m proud of him and for him. I have friends and others who have served — some who are no longer with us.
I recognize that service does not necessarily enlighten all who serve. But it can, and it does. Most people who have served and seen the suffering and pain of war and conflict don’t wish that experience on anyone, especially those closest to them. And I like to believe that in the midst of sacrifice, suffering and destruction, that we can become more, that life finds its way.
I think for me, I have to believe that. On Memorial Day, I’m remembering these men because they are my connection to life and my connection to service. And I loved them. Not because they served, but because they were my people, and because in their own imperfect way, they showed me a better way.
For them and for all those who served, I say, “Thank you.”