Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Medals for My Pappaw

My Pappaw joined the Army before World War II began, because it was a steady job that let him send money home to the family. In the time in which he was growing up--the Great Depression--and place where he grew up--the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas--that was a pretty big deal.

Pappaw was stationed in California when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was out on leave at the time, and by the time he'd meandered his way back to base (having purposefully ignored the radio announcements that all soldiers return to their bases, because seriously, who wants to cut short what is clearly going to be their last vacation for a while?), his entire contingent had left, and he and his buddies were just in time to follow the last supply truck to their new base, where they prepped for being shipped overseas.

As a driver of heavy vehicles in the 39th Engineering Combat Group, Pappaw was part of Darby's Rangers for several of their notable campaigns, including the Battle for Gela, storming the beach at Anzio, and liberating Rome. During that time, he also received a promotion that he didn't want, shot down an enemy plane, and helped build a lot of things and blow a lot of other things up.

Pappaw was sent home in July 1945. After he was discharged, he could have stayed on base for a couple of weeks, getting his physical and receiving his medals and enjoying some down-time, or he could leave right that second from St. Louis and head back home.

Would YOU stay for a second longer than you had to?

And that's how Pappaw never came to receive those last medals and campaign pins that he earned.

Until last weekend:

My aunt contacted an Arkansas state senator, who found out what awards Pappaw had never received and arranged for him to be given them. Pappaw's friends and family gathered in the parish hall of my aunt's church, where a military official first gave the bloodiest, most interesting history of America's involvement in wars since World War I (I sent the girls outside to play after he put his hand on Willow's shoulder while he told all present about how children "just like this little girl were euthanized and exterminated," but I paid rapt attention to the entire lecture, myself), and then presented Pappaw with his awards.

And, of course, on any family occasion when we're all as nice and cleaned up as we're going to get, it's family picture time!!!

Does Willow not have the NAUGHTIEST smile on her face?
She has always been a brat in front of the camera, and it's gotten much worse since she read the complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips several months ago, so whenever I have to take a photo of her, I put my camera on its rapid-shot mode and just keep taking pictures--if I'm lucky, I'll later come across one in which she's between naughty poses in a way that looks smile-ish, and in which everyone else's patient smiles haven't withered too much during the process. Fortunately, Pappaw was so amused by my millions of photos plus Matt's patter of threats/encouragements to get Willow to smile, that he's wearing one of my favorite smiles of his, too.

To be able to come to this ceremony, Matt and I drove a 20-hour round trip, with about 20 hours spent in Ft. Smith. We've been keeping the road hot this fall, but I wouldn't have missed the ceremony for the world. It's even better, I think, that instead of receiving those medals with the remnants of his company in the final days of his enlistment, weary of the entire experience, Pappaw got to receive them 67 years later, his military efforts understood and put into the larger context, surrounded by friends, his three surviving children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Most of those attending Pappaw's ceremony weren't even alive during World War II; we've never seen Pappaw in his uniform, nor witnessed him being praised for his military accomplishments. I explained to my girls over and over that what they were watching was a very special event, and reminded them over and over (as I often do) to make a memory of it. Because one day, when my girls are all grown up, there will no longer be any World War II veterans alive to be acknowledged, and this memory that they'll have of watching their great-grandfather receive his World War II medals will be a very special, and very rare memory for them to have.

As it is for me.

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