I didn’t come from a military family per se, but there was a strong sense of pride and respect and nationality nestled closely in-between my half-immigrant, half-WASP family. Mother’s side. My father was almost drafted into the Vietnam War but I’m pretty sure that me sitting here and typing this is a clear indication that he wasn’t. One of my uncles wanted to go but couldn’t because of his poor health and the other could go but didn’t want to because he was a conscientious objector. Both sons of a World War II hero.
My maternal grandfather — Nonno to my cousins and I — had ridden the rails from Ipswich, South Dakota to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. He did so in search of steady work and a steady paycheck to send back home to his single mother and two sisters. Nonno enlisted in the Marine Corps and was chosen to be part of the 2nd battalion of the Marine Raiders led by Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson. This group of men — Carlson’s Raiders — couldn’t have been more different than the men fighting on the front lines of the European campaign. They were trained in martial arts, guerrilla warfare, survival tactics, and didn’t shave. In 1942 they began fighting in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, on islands scattered throughout the South Pacific.
Nonno fought on Guadalcanal — nicknamed “Starvation Island” — that I know for sure. He once told my mother that, as they were jumping off the ship and into the water with 50+lbs. bags strapped to their backs, no one thought to ask whether or not they could swim. Nonno couldn’t but was luckily saved by FDR’s son, James Roosevelt, who grabbed him and helped him into a raft before heading to shore where the real nightmare begun.
He didn’t talk about the war with me. I was too young. Over the course of my childhood, we were heading in different physical directions: as I was gaining full use of my legs, he was losing the use of his. As I went from crawling to teetering to walking to running he went from walking to ambling to a walker to a wheelchair. As I learned how to speak, he was losing his voice — a product of the throat cancer and radiation treatments. I remember his gravely voice and slow speech and deep laugh. At his funeral many people described him as “a man of few words” but that wasn’t how he was with my cousins and I. Around us he laughed and joked and sung about ice cream.
He lost his eye in the war when he was shot in that space between his eyebrows — a place most of us take for granted. A group of men found him days later: he had been lying on the ground, maggots cleaning his wounds, and presumed dead. This was all after he had shared cover under a Jeep with an exploding grenade.
By the time I came around, he had a glass eye. Nonna would help take care of him by replacing and cleaning his eye in a gesture that I once found crude but now realize is intimate. He had more than one, of course. And I, being of curious mind and free reign over their small house, had the unfortunate luck of finding it. Once in a container in the bathroom, another time encased on the table. I promise you it’s more funny than gross, but maybe that’s because I have a strange sense of humor.
I always thought we all did — my mom’s family and I — have a strange sense of humor. But I attributed that to the family business. After returning from the war, meeting my Nonna, eloping, and attending mortuary school, my grandparents started an ambulance business. Since Nonno couldn’t drive, Nonna became one of the first female ambulance drivers in the state. The two of them helped everyone — they would drive into the local Indian reservation when the Highway Patrol would just park at the gates. My grandparents usually saw people on the worst day of their lives and oftentimes it was ugly and messy. They didn’t flinch or falter but did everything in their power to help. I like to think that they developed a certain type of humor from working day in and day out with emergencies and bodies and feelings and fluids. A sense of humor passed from them to my mom and then down on to me. A humor that hasn’t quite made me the class clown or the comic relief at parties.
Nonno was proud to be a Marine Raider. He subscribed to The Raider Patch, attended Raider reunions, bought books authored by fellow Raiders, and celebrated the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. He supported other veterans, one of which was a diamond setter and jewelry maker that owned a shop in town. While his wife was warm and soft and friendly, stringing with smiles, Joe was hard and serious and angular. At first. After that he was all hugs and smiles and generosity. My grandparents would get together with Joe and his wife on the USMC birthday, wearing their Marine Corps branded clothing with beers in hand, talking politics, sharing jokes and jabs. I later learned that Joe had been in the Marine Corps marching band which made sense considering he played a mean accordion.
Our good family friend — Monsignor, rebel, and harmonica player — presided over Nonno’s funeral. We were all grief-stricken when we walked into the church. It was the first time I had ever sat in a pew at the front because my mom and dad and I always sat three rows from the very back. In Catholic tradition, when the priest walks into the church as part of the processional, the congregation stands. There was a moment in-between at the funeral: a moment between when Nonna stood and the congregation stood. It had to have been a split second but I remember looking up at her, standing by herself, and thinking she must be the loneliest person in the whole world. She stood tall, with her chin sticking out a little, face toward the alter, with what looked like determination written all over her face. I hope Nonno didn’t see that look because I think it would have broken his heart.
Monsignor made the funeral not a funeral. He knew my family so well that he joked and had everyone laughing. He even made a joke about one of my uncles who had gone into the seminary at the age of thirteen only to run off with an older woman months before he was supposed to take his final vows. “Pious fraud,” Jack had called him as the congregation roared. And that’s what I remember: laughing until I cried and crying some more. To this day when someone brings up Nonno’s funeral, they always mention the laughing. Sometimes they say, “I don’t remember what I was laughing about, but we were all laughing.”
The streets surrounding the church on the way to the cemetery were closed off: full of firetrucks, police cars, ambulances, and a few armory vehicles — like a sad parade. There were lights and some sirens, out of respect. Cars were jammed in and parked for blocks in our tiny town that always had more than enough spots available. It was as if the whole town had stopped what they were doing just to pay their respects and attend Nonno’s funeral. The day marked another first as I rode in a limo — one of my aunt’s organized that — but it seemed so lavish and inappropriate. We weren’t celebrating, but mourning. Didn’t she get the memo?
At the gravesite, I wasn’t ready. Not that you’re ever ready — you aren’t. But the 21 gun salute really did me in. I can still hear the sound of the guns ringing in my ears and reverberating throughout my heart. Watching the faces of my family as we stood and sat beside the grave ripped me open even further. When the solider walked over to my Nonna after folding the flag and then handed it to her — another reminder she was now alone after fifty some-odd years of marriage — I felt completely helpless because I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to make it better. If you’ve ever seen this solider-flag-family ritual you know what I’m talking about. You know it’s respectful and ceremonial but also heart-shattering and excruciating to watch.
Now, when we go to the cemetery to leave flowers for Nonno, I make sure to visit our friends — all the ones that have passed on since we buried him. Most of them are close by since they were veterans, too. I remember feeling sad and scared when Nonna talked about buying the burial plot next to Nonno’s, but she did the right thing. She had a place to go when she died some eight years later.
So when I think of Memorial Day, I don’t think about BBQs and brews or simple reds, whites, and blues. I think of all this. I think about my Nonno and all he did before I was born and for me, after. I think about how he taught me respect and compassion and how to help others selflessly. I think of all of his friends and their families and their sacrifices. And I think about all the people’s names I don’t know that are in the military or were in the military, and their families and the generations after them that will be touched by their service in some way. And I hope they are respectful of this day and changed for the better, like I am.