This past week, I’ve been thinking of my grandfather, who was a veteran of WWII. Growing up, I spent an enormous amount of time with my grandparents, including spending every day before and after school during 3rd and 4th grade, as well as entire months over the summer. They were my safe place, and they left an indelible imprint on who I gradually become as I matured. Their intrinsic love of the arts inspired my own, and through them, particularly my grandfather, I learned to appreciate opera, musical theater, and especially literature. He collected volumes of classical works and French philosophy, several of which now sit on my shelves. He especially loved Montaigne, Camus, and existential thought, instilling the same in me.
He voluntarily signed up to serve in the Navy when he was 17, lying about his age for what he thought would be a grand adventure on the water. He served on a carrier in the South Pacific, and he forever harbored a special love for Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical of the same name. Jacob, aka Jake, whom my son is named for, was the seaman who distilled cherry moonshine in the bowels of the ship, and arrived back home with dreamy photos of him and exotic women from a variety of ports, such as Shanghai. Despite his exploits, my grandfather hated the war, and despised even more what it robbed from him.
After returning, the underbelly of the war slowly ate away at his soul, nibbling and swallowing parts of himself as time marched on. He was a raging alcoholic. Not just the ‘get loaded at the VFW and drive home’ type of drinker, although he was that too. He hid bottles across the house, only surrendering and making a go of sobriety when my grandmother, whom he loved fiercely, would threaten to leave. I can remember going to the basement to search through my stash of toys and finding bottles of clear liquid I would later understand to be vodka, pushed into random corners and inside barrels. He and his younger son, also fond of liquid courage, would have confrontations, sometimes jarringly physical, when both were imbibing.
My grandfather would often pass out or go to sleep early around 8pm, rising at 2am, in the middle of night, to sit and watch either playboy (when he knew/thought I was sleeping when I visited), or the history channel. I can remember being awake, reading, and hearing the television recounting missions and escapades of the war. Sometimes I would venture downstairs and join him. If he were drunk, he would regale me with slurred tales of his service: the bodies floating in the ports as the carrier cut through the sea, the empty eyes of those who lay scattered and dead, the horror of having to see humans treated like pieces of discarded meat. If sober he sat silent, absorbing the documentary, or movie, he had stumbled on. His favorites were Bridge Over the River Kwai, and anything John Wayne.
He once told me if he could go back in time he would have never enlisted, seeing it as his biggest regret. The war strangled his faith. He was an active agnostic on the verge of atheism. He had seen the absolute worst that humanity could enact, and he could no longer believe that there was a god that would allow such horror. It vexed my grandmother, an avid churchgoing volunteer and dedicated Catholic. But it gave him an ability to see people for their core humanity. Out of his six brothers, he was one of the most liberal and non-religious, a black sheep in a sea of white wool.
With the resurgence of fascist views and acts of hatred propagating the country, I can’t help but imagine how incredulous he would be to it all. How frustrated he would be with the direction we are headed, the slow march to a possible clash between those who understand that we must refuse reverting back to where we came from, and those who want nothing more than to turn back the hands of time for their own self-interest, despite who it harms. How this might be a trigger for him to turn to the bottle, where he might drown the agony from the mere thought of watching what he survived take root in his home soil. His past revisiting like ghostly memorials, the atrocities he witnessed resurfacing, demanding to know how we find ourselves here once more.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...