Veteran’s Day always makes me think of my grandfather, my favorite veteran.
He died in 2015. He didn’t talk much about his service, at least not to me. What little I do know, I’ve learned from my mother, and I’m always trying to piece it together in stories, because those are all I have left of him now. I wonder how many grandchildren could say the same thing.
Here’s something I wrote not long after he died. I thought I might include it in a larger work (that still isn’t done, and might never be).
Some of it’s true.
At a fork in an old country road, surrounded by rocky fields and green mountains and flanked on both sides by cracked pavement, sits an old white farmhouse. Its shutters and clapboard are going grey, its chimney is crumbling, and any reminder that it used to be part of a functioning farm is long gone, replaced by overgrown patches of wild onions and cattails. There’s no sign now that it ever housed a family. This is the house where my grandfather grew up, nestled outside of a small Appalachian town.
The land is called Hell’s Half Acre, and my grandfather knew, when he was a boy, that he’d have to work it. Walking home from school, a satchel of books swinging in his hand, he wondered every day if it would be the last he’d make the trek. And one day it was. He left school in seventh grade, a servant to the farm. It was that, he told my mother, or be sold to another family, one with the resources to afford another mouth to feed. Instead, he used his hands to work. Evenings on the farm, and days underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, he’d stare at the fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to choose any direction at all.
“When I grow up,” he said to himself, eating dinner at a quiet table full of tired, hungry people, between gulps of buttermilk and bites of toasted biscuit, “when I grow up…” He didn’t dare dream of that time. Dreaming felt hopeless, not an escape but a trap, a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end.
Then, when he turned sixteen, there came a war.
“I’m going to sign up,” he said to his brother, and he did. He lied about his age, though not by much, and found himself on a train west, to basic training somewhere in the Dakotas. And then a ship east, to Africa. And then a ship north, to Italy. And it was there, sleeping in empty towns and eating blood-spackled bread, that he met a girl. Sort of.
Back home, my grandmother was reading books by flashlight every night, hiding under her covers from a father who thought women shouldn’t read and a step-mother who wore her dead mother’s clothes. Sometimes, in the quiet, heavy darkness, my grandmother would talk to her sister, who died when they were both very young, because she had no one else to talk to.
“Lucy,” she’d say, “when I grow up…” And she’d pause. “When I grow up…” And she couldn’t finish the thought. When she grew up, she would be some man’s wife, some child’s mother, and finally some graveyard’s newest coffin.
And then one day, she sent a picture and a letter to a soldier from the county, off fighting in a war that involved the whole world. And it changed everything.