This writeup originally appeared in the daylog for May 29, 2001. I have just learned that my grandfather passed away earlier this evening, after several years of declining health. I have wanted for some time now to put my recorded memory of him on E2 under a more dignified node title, to honor his life and his contribution to our world.

I almost posted this as hidden from New Writeups, as I do not personally care about the votes it may receive. But then I realized that I am moving it here because I want you to read it, and to understand the sacrifices my grandfather's generation made for humanity and civilization as we know it. It is something that none of us should ever forget.

In observance of Memorial Day, yesterday I went to visit my mother's father, William Carmichael Owen, in Panama City. My family and I celebrated his 91st birthday a few weeks ago at my brother's home in Mexico Beach, Florida.

My grandfather served his country as a cook in the US Army during World War II. He was stationed in Europe, and was at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. While in a trench during the brutal days of the largest land battle of that war, the bitter winter weather caused his toes to freeze inside his boots (an affliction suffered by many vets of that battle). As a child, I remember him showing my brother and me the damage done to his feet during the war, and I was always more than a little curious about why he never gave many details about the circumstances that resulted in this disfigurement.

"Poppy" never wanted to talk much about the war. Even when we asked him pointed questions about his experiences (as children are often wont to do), he would shrug them off and say "That was a long time ago," or "It's all over now, the important thing is that we're all here together." Even when I was young, I respected his reluctance to discuss the time he spent overseas during the war, and figured that he knew better than I about what was suitable to disclose in front of us kids.

So many years later, I wish now that he had been a little more willing to recount his war experiences. Poppy has been deteriorating mentally over the last ten years or so, and suffers from clogged carotid arteries and senile dementia. His physical health has also suffered in recent years, and he can no longer walk unaided, or breathe without the assistance of bottled oxygen. He will not feed himself without persistent prompting, and has wasted away to a fragile shell of the man he once was. He has become frail and gaunt, and does not recognize members of his family except on rare occasions when he exhibits a limited lucidity. Any hope of getting him to describe his war experiences to me have been lost to his diminishing state, or so I thought.

His wife, my grandmother, has always been a self-absorbed shrew of a woman, and the only way to get to talk with my grandfather was to get him away from her for a little while where we could be alone. So shortly after I arrived, I made a phone call to my mother (a trick I had never tried before) and asked her to distract my grandmother for a while so that I could have a few moments alone with Poppy. While their phone conversation commenced, I led my grandfather out to the back porch of his house and sat down on the swing with him in the warm Florida sunlight.

I discovered many amazing things about my grandfather that day. His mental capacity has not diminished so much as it has slowed down. If you ask him a question, he will ponder it for a while and will eventually give you an answer. My grandmother is not patient enough to wait for his responses, so to her it is if he is no longer able to think or respond to external stimuli, but this is far from truth. I asked Poppy about the war like I had done so many times in my youth, and this is his paraphrased response:

There were a lot of us. We were hungry and cold all the time. I had to cook for them, and I peeled more potatoes that winter than I'd ever seen before in my life. They came in boxcars at first. It was mighty cold. So cold that my feet froze. They gave me a rifle, and I was down in a trench that night when my feet got frozen. The Germans were firing at us, and we were down in that trench and it was so cold that the only thing that kept us alive was our fear. I stood in ice for hours. A bunch of us died out there, but I was lucky. After my feet froze, the doctors were able to save (my toes), and I was sent home. The war was over not much longer after that.
This modest description is the best detail that I have ever been able to get out of him. I know that he is glossing over so many details that he simply doesn't want to recount, or perhaps just doesn't want to remember. I told him that I was proud of him and the service he had done for America during the war, and that today was Memorial Day. He smiled, and seemed unsure of what I meant. I told him that I was there to thank him for his contribution as a veteran, in his own small way, to help rid the world of the evil tyranny of the Nazis. After a few moments, a tear formed in his eye, and he said, "Well, we were only doing what had to be done. What I did wasn't that special."

Oh, Poppy. Don't you realize? You're a hero.