Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Memorial Day


On Memorial Day, my grandfather -- a double amputee from World War II -- drove his Cadillac (outfitted with hand controls) down Main Street in Newark, Delaware in the Memorial Day Parade. He also sometimes handed out small velvety poppies with wire stems to people who made donations to the VFW while situated outside of the Acme in his wheelchair. Then Senator now VP Joe Biden came to his funeral.

This grandfather, Hiram Lane, was the only grandfather I knew, my grandfather by marriage. He lost his legs on the battlefield, watched a US tank roll toward him, unable to move, and he was then lifted up by an unknown soldier, who saved his life, opened his vial of morphine, helped him get it down. He was then placed on a stretcher then loaded onto a truck. The soldiers with the greatest chance of survival were put in the center of the truck, protected by the bodies of those not likely to make it. He was not put in the center. He made it to doctors and was eventually put on a ship where he contracted gaseous gangrene which he miraculously survived. What was left of his legs floated, dead, in the tub. Back in the states, he underwent over thirty operations, was hospitalized for three years.

But this isn't my family's sole soldier.

My great-grandfather first served in the Navy then the Army. The Navy gave him his first pair of pants; before that he'd only worn short pants, knickers. He was fed and clothed and he traveled, seeing a little action in Veracruz, where he ate his first banana and had an overprotective young officer who, above all, ordered his men to hide.

(My grandfather on my mother's side got out of serving in World War II. He knew a guy who knew a guy. After the war, someone owed him some money -- a lost bet -- and he gave my grandfather a German Lugger, pulled from a dead enemy soldier.)

While serving, my grandfather on my father's side died due to a blow to the head in a jeep accident, state-side. My father was five-years-old.

My father was in the National Guard -- too young for the Korean War and too old for Vietnam. He marched against the Vietnam War as it dragged on with my mother (and me in a stroller) and marched with me during the lead up to the Iraq War, taking turns holding my baby, now an 11-year-old.

(My brother was never a soldier. For a few weeks when my brother was 17, he met a dynamic recruiter and decided he wanted to join up. All he needed was for my parents to sign the papers. The recruiter called the house. He got my mother. She said, "You want me to sign papers to hand you over to my son?" She mentioned Parris Island deaths and went on to clarify, "Let me explain one thing to you. I will never, ever sign these papers. I will never, ever hand over my son. Over my dead body. Do not ever call this house again. Is that clear, officer? Over my dead body.")

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Our friend Thomas Joiner has a massive grant to research suicide among our soldiers. It's a crisis in the military. And we're thankful that Joiner -- who's dedicated much of his life to researching and educating people about suicide -- is at the helm.

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My grandfather -- the first one I mentioned above -- was sometimes instructed to walk an enemy soldier to a POW camp five miles away, and the order would end like this, "And be back in five minutes." This meant he was to shoot the enemy soldier.

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A few weeks ago, I had a piece on NPR's All Things Considered, and someone wrote in the comment box something like: Seriously, Baggott's afraid of the draft? How stupid. I explained that my parents have 13 grandchildren, that I have four children, three of which are boys. Yes, I fear the draft. Yes, I fear war, combat, battle.

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I let my 14 year old son watch Saving Private Ryan this weekend. He and his sister watched Apocalypse Now last week. This year is US History for my 16 year old; we've talked about so many wars this year.

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Last week, my mother was in the post office and a young woman was sending cookies and a Playboy to her boyfriend serving overseas. She and my mother joked in line. The woman said, "Next time, I'm going to send him a dirty magazine and paste my face over every other girls' face throughout the whole thing."

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Last week, I wrote In Praise of Single Parents. Today, I think of all those parents -- men and women -- who are tending to their families alone while their husbands and wives serve. Deep sacrifices all around -- the spouse sacrificing their partner, the child sacrificing their parent ...

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Last week, Dave was in DC as a chaperon for a school trip. They went to Arlington, laid a wreath, and a soldier played "Taps". Dave's eyes stung with tears -- among all of those graves, all of that loss, he said it was the fact that the bugle has no keys. It was the soldier's voice that hit each note.