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11/12/2007

Boomerang

"The old clock is running down.  It may be quite a while before it completely stops; however, I thought it was a good time to tell you about being the 'Big Hero' of World War Two."

That is how my grandfather's letter begins.  It was written a couple of years ago, and came accompanied by a fat photocopied packet containing the history of his USAAF squadron. 

The official record is difficult for me to follow.  I'm not familiar with the history of the war in the Pacific, and there are altogether too many dutiful notations of who was transferred where and when for me to do more than skim it, looking for mentions of my grandfather's name.  But there are plenty of those, as he served with some distinction.

What is infinitely more absorbing is the letter, my grandfather's personal history of his service.  While the official record offers descriptions like this:

7 December 1941.  The personnel of the 72nd Bomb Sqdn were rather rudely awakened this Sunday morning by the sound of Jap Bombs exploding in Pearl Harbor setting off the greatest war in the history of man.

...my grandfather's is more down to earth: "P. and I had made plans to be married in January 1942 in Honolulu and had purchased a ticket on the Matson line.  After December 7, the ticket was refunded and we did lots of letter-writing for the next year and a half."

His letter is sprinkled with precise details like that, the name of the cruise line he'd booked for my grandmother, the name of the jeweler who'd sold him her engagement ring, the builder of their first house, remembered some sixty years later.  As sharp as his memory was his wit, sly and understated.  "It seems," he wrote of the search mission he called his most memorable, "that the brass had managed to lose track of the Japanese navy fleet." 

He found it, all two carriers, two battleships, six cruisers, and eleven destroyers of it, but says no more of the award he subsequently received than, "I received a telegram message from the South Pacific Commander that read, 'Extremely well done, 5 Vector 40.'"  This understatement was utterly in character.  For as long as I've known him, he hasn't talked casually about his service, not ever, and always discouraged questions about it; when the local paper wanted his thoughts on the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he politely reminded him that he'd talked to them ten years earlier, gave them permission to reprint that earlier interview, and bid the reporter good day.

This characteristic reticence made it surprising when I got the packet he'd sent.  I knew he had served, but hadn't known the details.  Didn't know he'd been decorated — "Everybody that was hospitalized got a Purple Heart, but I just had sunburn, and received the Silver Star" — or that he'd been promoted and subsequently deployed to Italy as a squadron commander — "I did get an R&R to Rome, but missed seeing the Vatican as the lines were too long.  The Pope's loss."

...

"Daddy's lost his mind," my aunt whispered when I called last month.  I laughed, thinking she was joking, that she meant that he'd finally been driven around the figurative bend by the outrageous behavior of my two young cousins, who live at my grandparents' house.  But she was serious.  From experiencing brief periods of confusion or forgetfulness, the kind of benign lapses one associates with advanced age, my grandfather had abruptly entered dementia.  Paranoia.  Loss of memory.  Hallucinations.

This has been a hard year for our family.  My aunt continues to convalesce at my grandparents' house, waiting to heal enough for further surgery'.  My uncle has returned there as well, leaving a failing marriage, moving in with two turbulent teenage girls.  There was my father's death, of course.  And this.  A big man, towering in body and spirit, reduced.  All-night agitation.  Imaginary spiders.  Telling his granddaughter to call the police.  Sure that he sees a little girl sitting in the corner. 

And, "Where is my wife?"  "T., I am your wife."

My grandmother.  Oh, my grandmother, who at 88 seems to be holding all our despair at bay with little more than determination and a stubborn refusal to abandon her habitual cheerfulness.  She who once summed up her philosophy by declaring, "I don't like unpleasant things," is awash in them.  Yet somehow she is the one who seems most together.  When I talk to my aunt, she confesses that she's had her Paxil dose doubled.  When I talk to my mother, she falls back on long, detailed accounts of visiting my grandfather at the nursing home, as if clinical detachment could shield us from the sadness of it all.  When I talk to my grandmother, though, she is matter-of-fact — rueful but composed.  Aware, from her own experience with her mother's decline, that the husband she knew and loved is irretrievably gone.  But bearing up, because that is what we do.  And doing so with grace and humor, because that is what she does.

"Julie," she says to me on the phone, "you know I'm a bourbon woman.  But we ran out, so I started on the gin.  Well, I don't like plain gin, so I was mixing it with Diet Coke.  Then we ran out of that, so I tried it with Gatorade.  But now we're out of Gatorade."

"So are you going to get more tonic?" I ask, her most devoted straight man.

"Oh, no, indeed.  Tonight I'll start on Ensure."

...

My mother has lost both her husband and her father in the span of a couple of months.  I can't say more about that without putting my head down on the desk and sobbing for her, and us all.

...

And so back to Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal.  My grandfather, in one of his intermittent moments of lucidity, asks my grandmother to look in "the hero drawer" to get his medals.  She takes them to him at the nursing home, where he looks at them, fingers his Air Medal, nods in satisfaction, and then asks that they be given to his oldest three great-grandsons, my nephews.  Before the request is fully out of his mouth, though, he's looking out the window with the confused expression my grandmother has come to recognize — not there, somewhere else, gone.  She's not unduly concerned.  He'll come back again, she knows, at least briefly, at least for now.

The name of his plane was Boomerang, "because it always came back, you see."  On the front of the squadron's history is a blurry copy of a photo, my grandfather and his crew.  They are smiling, handsome, young.

I never knew my grandfather to be a demonstrative man, but in the photo his arms are draped around his crew members' shoulders.  The end of his letter surprises me even more: "I think every day how lucky I am to have been married 61 years to the most wonderful person in the world and how lucky our children are to have her for a mother.  I have been blessed with loving children and grandchildren unto the fourth generation.  I am so proud of all of you."

The old clock is running down.  Extremely well done, 5 Vector 40.  It was the Pope's loss, indeed.

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