Like many of you, I had plans for the Memorial Day Weekend.
It’s not hard to find something to do when the first three-day weekend rolls around, but it is hard sometimes to escape the fact that we’re celebrating on a weekend that should be reserved for remembering.
That’s why, I suppose, that as Judy and I put some miles on the family wagon, my mind often wandered to times long since passed.
I really don’t have to think about Memorial Day any more. Now that I’ve retired from the newspaper profession, I’m no longer “required” to spend part of the three-day weekend taking photos of observances at cemeteries around the area, marking veterans’ graves and honoring the memories of those individuals who served in wars that are part of our history.
Granted, on the occasion that those conducting services asked all veterans to step forward, I was proud to be a part of that group. Yes, I’m proud to have served, but I prefer to remember the sacrifices made by veterans in the past.
Often I find myself digging through boxes and books of old photos, black and white images of relatives who served before me and whom I believe made far greater sacrifices than I. Several of my uncles served during World War II, while a couple others served during the time immediately after that war, and were part of America’s Occupation Forces.
When I think of World War II, though, I always think of one man. There’s a photo of that man, who passed away 30 years ago, in his uniform, holding a baby just a few months old. It was taken in early 1944, too early for the winter chill to have been swallowed by the warmth of the summer sun. It’s very personal to me. The soldier, proudly wearing his Army uniform, is my uncle Jack. The baby in the photo is me.
Uncle Jack was a personal favorite of mine, but I’d imagine he was a favorite of many other of his nephews and nieces. I’m sure they have personal tales to tell of their time spent with Uncle Jack, whose wife left him when he was overseas during World War II. Nonetheless, Jack fought on, as did other soldiers in his engineer battalion. Jack’s unit was given the task of building bridges for American tanks and jeeps and other armored vehicles as they advanced on German forces during the infamous Battle of the Bulge. Jack’s bravery under fire earned him an Army medal for heroism.
Jack never spoke of his service, though. He never considered himself a “hero,” although he and others like him were certainly that. I can’t imagine living in the extreme cold with no shelter but a tent, no warmth but an occasional fire and the Army clothes on your back. The men who endured the Battle of the Bulge not only lived daily under extreme weather conditions, they also lived so close to the enemy lines, sometimes even behind enemy lines, that they couldn’t rest even for a moment. There was no time for them to feel sorry for themselves because of the cold; they had to be concerned that their own lives could end with a single mortar shell or a sudden ambush.
No, my uncle Jack never spoke of his days in World War II. Once, I asked my mother about Jack and World War II. She told me that “Jack doesn’t like to talk about those days; he saw so much death and destruction that it’s just too hard for him to remember.” I respected that, but I’ll admit that I never spent a single minute with uncle Jack when I didn’t want to ask him about World War II. I wanted to hear all about it; I wanted Jack to tell me about his own exploits during the war.
I respected him too much, though, to pry into some part of Jack’s life that he was reluctant to talk about.
My wife sometimes questions my awareness. She might ask a question that goes unheard and, naturally, unanswered. She’ll jog me into awareness, though, and I’ll apologize for not listening.
Really, though, it’s just that my mind is elsewhere. I’m probably off in a cloud and I could be thinking about my uncle Jack. I could be thinking of his life and how, no matter what his personal strife, he fought with the best in World War II.
I’ve got a photo of uncle Jack holding a baby in the winter of 1943-44 that tells another story about the man I loved. His hands were gentle enough to hold a baby, but were also strong enough to help America win one of its most important battles of World War II.