Or any other member of our military for that matter.
I didn’t serve so I obviously can’t speak for any of them but it just seems self-serving.
My grandpa served in the Marines, for that matter so did his sister, my aunt Helen. They were both so polite whenever anyone tried to thank them for service to their country. Looking back though I see that they both had no clue how to receive that thanks, they knew none of us (you included) could fathom what we were thanking them for.
I didn’t know my Aunt Helen quite as intimately as I did my Grandpa. I knew her and adored her, though I didn’t spend the same amount of time with her. Seems like I was always sitting on his lap or following him around hoping for a story, a song or a joke (preferably not the “pull-my-finger joke that grandpa had worn out by the time I was seven.)
He was a Marine.
The kind that makes me proud of my heritage as both his granddaughter and as an American. Thing is, I remember sitting on his lap around 8 years old and asking about being in The War. I wanted to know if he was a hero and if he was brave. His total openness to me as an innocent child froze up for a second, almost imperceptibly. Normally full of himself, a confident man with swagger before it even had a name, he changed right then. Got old, somber.
The swaying motion of the big wooden rocking chair slowed, it may have stopped for a second, his sky blue eyes looked away from mine, got far away, he readjusted his ball cap a few times, rubbed his stubbly chin, after a pause the rocking chair was moving again. The little girl in his lap sat and waited, wondering at what she saw. Eventually there was an answer something like this;
“Well, babe, there were some really brave boys over there, that’s sure. (Long pause.) Most of the Hero’s, well, they didn’t come home.”
There was more rocking and silence and I let him have all he needed.
“You want to go coyote hunting tonight?”
He’d change the subject to something that held enough allure and excitement that I would be talking about it the entire rest of the day. (Don’t worry, I never did shoot any coyotes, lots of rocks, cans, and fence posts…)
Grandpa, he spent at least as much time with us as teachers and our Mother. Maybe more. For the life of me I can’t understand what compelled him. I am around kids all of the time and cannot imagine a scenario where I would actively go looking for more of them to hangout with (and buy ice-creams for.) Yet it was pretty routine for him to show up and kidnap us from wherever we were, this habit was pervasive even into my adulthood when he would show up at my place of employment.
“Let’s go babe.”
(Thankfully I always did and thankfully no boss ever booted me for it.) I tell myself my sisters and cousins and I were exceptionally charming and sweet children, but if I said that outloud my friends and family would have a good belly laugh, right in my face no doubt.
Now, About That Thank-you
Truthfully, how genuine can you sound or be to someone who has been there, even in peace times, men and women who are trained to do all our dirty work, at all cost…including not only taking lives, but possibly give theirs. I don’t pretend to have all the reasons they do it. Loyalty, work ethics, not wanting to let each other down, to prove something to themselves, or because they are stubborn and said they would so they do…My grandpa did it to get a paycheck, to support his widowed mom and baby siblings, then he did it because he had to and because he is that kind of man. The kind that gets stuff done (and yeah, he was stubborn) follows through and does what he says he will.
I imagine that each of us grandkids asked him about his service multiple times. We did get stories eventually. Those are treasured, not glamorous or exciting, most involve portions of an exploit involving crawling on his belly through enemy lines with dysentery. The reality is that he was protecting us. All those years he slipped into silence or changed the subject or conjured a joke instead of talking about his service. I know this because he did share at the end.
There is some irony for us in eventually hearing those stories. Most people are not as brave as him. Most would have had nurses and doctors around the clock. He really was brave. Strong too.. and stubborn…doesn’t’ begin to cover it–you have no idea. His last days would be spent in his home. Instead of a stranger at his side it was us.
Makes me wonder how many nurses and doctors are the ones who sit and listen to recantations of the brave in their last moments when they face their mortality and feel they have left something unsaid.
By grace his family would stay with him round the clock until his time here ceased and he was released from illness. A part of him couldn’t help but evaluate the life he was leaving behind. A sharp-witted and a deep thinker, always analysing and strategizing the best approach to every problem or challenge, he was making his peace, laying to rest ghosts from his past.
During those days with each of us and at different moments he told us bits, parts of his days in the Corps. The parts he had protected us from…probably not all of them…knowing him…not even the really hard and painful parts. It’s enough. It’s enough that I can never feel comfortable thanking anyone for that ever again.
I might look at them with deep compassion, have the utmost respect and regard. I might send a prayer into the ethers that someone loves them all the way into their dark places and won’t let go. I won’t thank them, not with words. For my brother in-law who has served two active tours in the military I will hug him a second longer than he wants me to, make his drink extra toxic and serve him the best piece of steak. That’s all I can do. That and support my sister, keep her from killing him when he’s being a stinker, stubborn or just full of piss and vinegar.