Papa

Twelve days ago my dad died.  He was the most remarkable man I ever knew, a man I looked up to more than any other.  It’s hard to imagine this world without him in it.

April 1st, 1945. Easter Sunday.

As dawn breaks in the western Pacific, an armada of 1300 American ships lies offshore Okinawa, poised to assault the first of the Japanese home islands. The ships have dodged a typhoon en-route and many of the sailors and soldiers and Marines are seasick. That’s in addition to the terrible anxiety of what lies ahead. The 36-day Iwo Jima campaign, conducted by their Marine brethren 855 miles east, just concluded a few days ago. That one cost more than 26,000 American casualties. No one, from the lowliest cook to the most seasoned general, can imagine what this one, this battle for Okinawa, will cost. But no one has any illusion that it will not be paid for very, very dearly.

April 1st. The pre-landing bombardment has been going on for two and a half hours, since just before light. The air literally buzzes with the sound of rockets and the duller, heavier reverberations of the huge ship gun shells as they impact. Every man, on every ship of this immense armada, hears and feels the air rent by the sounds. There is no closet, no corner, no wardroom, anywhere in this vast armada from which one can escape it. The leaden minutes tick by, pregnant with portent.

April 1st. As the landing craft begin moving towards the beaches shortly after 8am, it is a beautiful, clear day in the East China Sea. There is just a hint of breeze. It is not quite 75°

It is his 19th birthday.

Back here in Roseland, one imagines that his mom and sister are getting ready for church. Perhaps a sunrise service. It’s dry on this Easter Sunday. But clouds are moving in. Tomorrow will bring a light rain.

His mom doesn’t know, of course. Which is just as well. She has already lost her oldest boy, nine months ago, in the hedgerows of France. Her second son is in the Fifth Marine Division and has just survived that bloody, difficult campaign just finished on Iwo Jima. Here now comes the third son, in the First Marine Division, here on Okinawa. And the fourth son is just finishing high school and will soon be in the Navy.

It must have been an awfully hard time to be the parent of a young man.

We know now how the battle on Okinawa unfolded, of course. It took 82 days and cost 82,000 American casualties. Over 110,000 Japanese died and nearly a third of the civilian population were lost. Ninety percent of the buildings on the island were destroyed. Cases of what we today call PTSD were rampant.

The experience marked him. He liked being a Marine. He liked the Spartan, minimalist discipline it instilled, the stoic resolve to do the things that were necessary. But, like many of that era who experienced what he did, he afterwards rarely spoke of the war itself. I suspect he knew that only those who were there could ever truly understand.

There was an interlude after the war, a handful of years, when he came home and did the things that young people everywhere do, to enjoy themselves and find themselves and figure out what they’re going to do next. On the one hand, the men who had been overseas and experienced the adrenalin-high of combat must have found civilian life to be drab and mundane. On the other, all those young people of what we now call “The Greatest Generation,” having come out the other end of a terribly fraught time, must have felt an exhilarating joy at simply being alive. I expect it was something of a mix.

He spent some time in college. And when that didn’t prove stimulating enough, he, almost on a lark, got on the bus to Norfolk and enlisted in the merchant marines. A year back out on the ocean, plying the sea lanes to Europe, was enough adventure to bring the perspective he was searching for.

When he came home he did what most the young people of his generation were doing… he settled down. He got married. And he and Joyce moved to DC, because that’s where the jobs were. And then we, the children who would later be called the Baby Boomers began to come along.

In a lifetime filled with memories, where do you begin? I don’t know. I haven’t a clue, only knowing that it is a tapestry that fills the heart.

He grew up with the Civil War close to his side, embedded in his soul. How could he not? His grandfather, his namesake, was a young medic in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was captured during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. When that young man came home from his war, he, too, settled down. He finished his studies and became a doctor and got married and began having babies. To the end of his days, though, he didn’t have much truck for Yankees. Long years later he named his thirteenth child, a little girl – Pop’s mom – Virginia Secession. Everyone called her ‘Sece.’ And most everyone knew what it was short for. So, no, there was no forgetting. They may tear down the monuments everywhere else, but if you go visit his home at East Branch you’ll find there a fine, fitting memorial to Southern valor and Southern sacrifice.

He was the most rigorously honest man I ever knew. Not honest just in the sense of never telling a lie, though that’s important. Beyond that, though, he was honest in what it means to ever be true to something. To hold to the essential core of what something means. To honor the fidelity of being honest when no one can see it, when no one knows, but you.

Watchful of the world around him, he early on came to see that the truth is malleable. That history is written by the victors… and then frequently gets re-written as it suits. He hated that. He hated even more that so few saw it.

When he found something he liked, he kept it. Long years after it was no longer in fashion, he would still don the wool, navy-blue watch cap after his morning shower, pressing back his short, still-damp hair so that his flat-top haircut – a fashion statement so many decades out-of-date that few barbers even knew how to do it justice – would take the proper set.

His wife and daughters were ever aghast at the – to them – tattered, used-up shirts and shoes and vests that he wore. But he knew what he liked. And he understood that the utility of something doesn’t depend on what other people think. Looking pretty for other people was something that never mattered. And as he got older I think that actually got turned on its ear… he took genuine pleasure in tweaking societal expectations.

As a young child he was a picky eater. Picky enough that Sece would often prepare a special dish for him for supper. When he grew up, though, that reversed, and food became an immense pleasure. He’d often laugh and say “I’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat me first.” For many years, the earliest sounds in our house were the soft tinkle of dishes down in the kitchen and the distant hissing of the frying pan, as he made his breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. Later, for supper, nothing made him happier than homemade biscuits and gravy, something that became a staple when we were growing up. I think his favorite of all, though, was probably a big plate of steaming fried tomatoes. With more of those homemade biscuits.

Pop didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but when we were young he’d sometimes be found there baking corn pone. Small, rounded loaves of coarse, dry cornbread about the size of your hand. Perfect for sliding in your pocket when you went outside. As we grew older he eventually stopped doing that. I never knew why, but suspect it was because Snu and Mops had become such good cooks by then that he just didn’t feel the need to cook.

He was a smart kid. Something of a bookworm. And that smart kid turned into a thoughtful, observant man. He loved books. And although he greatly enjoyed many things – everything from golf, to gardening, to cutting the grass, to his famous Virginia boxwoods – I think he loved books best of all. From his earliest days, to his last, he ever had them at his side.

He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but, curiously, he always loved religious music. That wasn’t always a wonderful thing for the rest of us. When we were little, Susan, Martha, and I took accordion lessons. My two sisters really took to those. For me, the novelty wore off about five minutes into the first lesson… and after that lifting that heavy music box was just a tortured chore. But although the sounds that we made with that accordion may have had only a distant relation to what most would call ‘music’ – certainly, mine did – you would never know it from my father. He would lay down on the couch a few feet from where our daily practice was unfolding, close his eyes, and ask for a few of his favorite hymns. And so you’d dutifully turn the music book to the requested songs and play the pieces, periodically looking over at him lying in peaceful repose, praying he wouldn’t fall asleep, because that meant the practice session would just go on longer. Of course, he always fell asleep.

Which wasn’t a surprise. He loved his naps. And a nice, comfortable couch was always a prerequisite in every home he ever had.

There were tough times, too, of course. When he was 66, Holly Hill, his beloved home in Northern Virginia, burned down. He and my mother lost nearly everything they owned. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, what should have been a minor snafu with the insurance company turned into a major disaster… there would be no insurance payment to help rebuild.

For most of us, buying or building a home, and paying it off, is a herculean effort requiring most of a lifetime. So you’re 66 years old and one cold February morning the house you’ve spent thirty years paying for is suddenly gone, with everything in it, and there’s no insurance. What the heck do you do?

Well, he had to figure that out. And he did.

Probably more than anything, the thing that so many of us will remember was his sense of humor. It illuminated his entire life, from the time he was a mischievous little boy until he was, well, a still-mischievous old man. Rarely would you see him when his face wasn’t lit by a grin.

And, of course, we can’t talk about his sense of humor without also talking about the thing it was kin to… his epic storytelling. He loved a good story, and few had that intangible sense of timing and presence that make a tale truly come to life, as did he. You left an afternoon spent at East Branch with this sort of uplifted feeling, but one where your stomach hurt from laughing so hard.

He lived to be 92 years old. He would be the first to tell that’s a long time. I never asked him, but I’ve always imagined that must have been bittersweet. On the one hand is the great good fortune to see such a wonderful expanse of life. To see your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren make their appearance and begin making their own marks upon the world. But on the other… we all come into this world shaken and afraid. We cling to our moms and our dads, to our brothers and our sisters, our foils against the hurt and the heartbreak and the aloneness of the world. As we grow older that cast of humanity that abides us and holds us grows larger. First, friends and schoolmates; later, acquaintances from work. Our circle grows large.

At some point, though, it reverses. We begin to lose people from that circle. Slowly at first, but then with an accelerating impatience, the people we clung to when we were little begin heading for that distant shore. Our original circle grows smaller and smaller. Eventually, if we live long enough, all those souls who made up the world when we entered, all those loved ones who once were our rock and our foundation, are gone. How difficult that must be.

He never complained, though. He loved family more than anything. And even in his later years – especially in those later years – he took immense pleasure in having that family around him. He loved being the patriarch of such a large, extended brood.

He’d also be the first to tell you how lucky he was. For living as long as he did, sure. But more than that, for living that long with both his wits and his body intact. He knew, far more than most, how rare that was.

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, he was flattered, indeed. I don’t know anyone he ever met who wasn’t influenced by him. I certainly was. You look around and you see his imprint everywhere.

The world may not be quite as bright as it was eleven days ago. But it is a vastly better place because he once lived in it.

And actually, that’s not quite right. Because Papa is here with us – present tense – in so many innumerable ways.

And always will be.

3 Responses to “Papa”

  1. Jay says:

    Sad when I heard the news. I will always remember is Clintwood eyes and grin as he looked down his pipe, waiting to see what your reaction was to something he said, or asked.
    Love to all of Lem’s wondrous, beautiful and talented family.

  2. Klaus Diefenbach says:

    Jeff,
    What a beautiful tribute to your father. Now I know where you get you talent for weaving a fine tale in your writing. I send you my condolences for your loss.

  3. Scott Abbott says:

    What a beautiful, and beautifully written, remembering of your grandfather, and what a lesson in how to live one’s life with honesty and honor. To treasure the simple things we have been so fortunate to have been given and truly care for those around us is something I am continually trying to learn and practice every day. This eloquent narrative of your grandfather’s life and code of living is not only something I’ve greatly enjoyed reading, it is something to aspire to in my own life.

    My condolences to you Jason and your whole family. God Bless you.

    Scott Abbott

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