Thank You, Grandpa

This is my grandfather, circa 1944.  A 1st Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.

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He was a pilot. He flew B-24 Bombers over Europe. He was part of the Battle of the Bulge, and was even shot down once or twice. In fact, he went MIA for a few days after one mission with an unplanned landing. As I remember the story, he managed to make his way back to the base just in time to prevent a dreaded “Missing-In-Action” telegram from being sent to my grandmother.

He served our country…and, like so many other men and women of his generation, and so many other veterans, his service defined him.

He was a wonderful father and grandfather. He was a salesman – selling corrugated paper and packaging materials to support his family. He loved to fish and travel, and tinker with gadgets around the house. But when he spoke of his time as an Army Air Corps pilot, his missions at night, the rations, and especially of his crew, his eyes would glimmer. Sometimes a tear would form in the corner of his eye, as he reminded us that as a pilot, he never lost a man. We knew the experiences he shared with his crew were sacred. We knew we could never really understand their bond, borne out of the fear they shared that one, or all of them, might not come home. They lived through moments of terror, I’m sure. Yet my grandfather reflected on his time in the service as one of the best times of his life.

I’m so grateful for his service, and for the sense of patriotism he passed on to his children and grandchildren.

To my Grandpa, and all those who serve:  THANK YOU.

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Step One: Get the Girl

1) Get the girl. (I believe this has already been attended to.)

I always smile when think of this line. A US Army chaplain wrote this in November, 1943 in a handwritten note to my grandfather, who was making plans to bring his fiancé, my grandmother, from New York to California to be married. At the time, he was training to be a bomber pilot, destined for combat in Europe.

Today would have been their 68th wedding anniversary. They were married for 57 years. Their wedding debuted a life-long love story that could teach us all a thing or two.

The ceremony was a small affair: the bride, the groom, the best man (a fellow air cadet) and his wife. It took place on a Wednesday evening, in a small church rectory, while my grandfather was on a four-hour pass from flight training in Ontario, California. The ceremony was simple but getting there a bit of an obstacle course.

First, my grandmother was a devout Catholic and my grandfather was Lutheran. This was a big deal 1943, and getting a Catholic priest to preside over the ceremony was no small task. For this reason, they were married in the rectory, rather than in the Church itself.

Then of course, was the little matter of WWII. My grandfather was away in California, and my grandmother was home, living with her parents in Queens, New York. They carried on a bicoastal relationship before the luxury of cell phones and Skype. My grandfather was in the Army; he could only marry if and when the Army said it was ok.

To that end, the Army chaplain, provided him with detailed instructions. He listed five main steps, with multiple sub-steps. Step One: Get the girl. The letter goes on to instruct my grandfather on how to obtain all of the required paperwork: health certificates for him and “the girl”, permission from his flight instructor, permission from his Commanding Officer, instructions on obtaining leave and what time of day would work best for his superiors, and a letter from “the girl” advising the Army that she would not be a financial burden.

My Grandmother made arrangements to travel by train to California, and used a brief telegram to tell my grandfather that she would arrive on November 14th.

Today, I sometimes ponder how excited they both must have been, anticipating their quiet little wedding day. Was Grandpa distracted during his training? When he smiled, his toothy grin would stretch from ear-to-ear, and I imagine that his flight crew might have given him some ribbing for his giddy demeanor. My grandmother was not fond of traveling, but she boarded that train all alone, and made her way across the country over several days to marry him. I am pretty sure she passed much of her time on the train by praying the Rosary.

They had little in the way of a honeymoon, as my grandfather had to be back at base by 23:00, but there is a saved receipt in his paperwork for a Los Angeles Hotel dated December 3, 1943. I suspect that this was the extent of their romantic getaway.

It wasn’t long before my grandfather was deployed to Europe and flew missions over Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge. He was shot down more than once, but emerged without a scratch.

My grandmother waited at home. My father was born while Grandpa was still in Europe, and He learned that he was a father from another telegram. “Son born. Both are well. All my love.”

The Proud New Dad

After the war, my grandparents went on to live a full, rather “normal” life together. They raised two children, and had a house in the ‘burbs. My grandfather was a successful salesman. He had a passion for angling, and enjoyed the occasional fishing trip to far off locations like Chile and Mexico. My grandmother, like most women of her generation, focused on caring for her family, including taking in her mother-in-law and father at different times. She kept an impeccable house, and she made a mean Saurbraten,

They had a life full of joy, children who loved them, and plenty of grandchildren and great grandchildren followed. They had struggles and sorrows too. At times, they worried about making ends meet. They had a son who died at birth, and they lost another son (my father) before his time.

They sometimes bickered, sometimes argued, but they always loved. I remember walking into their kitchen once as a teenager, and spotting a single flower in a bud vase on the kitchen table. When I commented on it, Grandma smiled and replied, “It’s from your grandfather. Today is the anniversary of our first date!”

Theirs was not a marriage of convenience, to be discarded at the first sign of trouble. Theirs was a marriage that made them both stronger and resilient in the face of adversity.

Once Grandpa “got the girl”, there was no turning back.

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