Wednesday, November 11, 2009
A Veteran's Day Tale
There are times in my life that I hope to always remember, this is the story of one of those times:
My son, Justin, at 16, had a very wise American History teacher who made each student interview a veteran and write a paper about it. Although his PaPaw Davis had served in the Navy during WWII, Justin, because of proximity and time constraints, chose to interview an elderly man at our church named Wade Kelly.
The evening for the interview came. Justin had prepared several questions scribbled on notebook paper, and had his little recorder for a back-up. My other son, Blake, who was 15 at the time, decided to go along with us. As we went to the door of the Kellys' we were greeted by Wade's wife, Ruth. She was a very pleasant, lady-like person with an easy laugh. She offered us a cold drink, and shooed-away the family dog.
Mr. Wade, as the folks at church called him, was a strong, silent, Clint Eastwood-type cowboy of a man. He was in his early 80's and still worked outside and took care of his horses every day. In fact, the story got around church once that Ruth had to make Wade go to the emergency room because he came in from working and his ear was cut almost in two and he was bleeding down his shirt. He had been putting up a barbed wire fence and didn't want to stop until he finished the job! Besides, he really didn't think that it, "needed looked-at". He was tall and thin and looked like someone who's body was solid as a rock from years of pure work. When he smiled, though, his intimidating persona melted to reveal a gentleman who loved his wife, all children and his animals...in that order.
As Wade talked to my two boys, the beginning of the conversation seemed to be difficult on his side of it. Like I said, he wasn't very talkative to begin with, but this seemed like a subject that he really wasn't comfortable covering with us, even though he had agreed to the interview. He started slowly by saying that he and his brother had signed-up to serve when he was 17 and his brother was 18. It was the Depression and there were no jobs, so lots of young men enlisted; it was the thing to do!
Then the conversation took a turn...Wade said, "I was home on leave from Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, and of course, I was called back right away!" He didn't talk about the time right after he was called back, just that he and his brother were in undisclosed locations in the Pacific and their mother was very worried. Wade finally got word to her that he was alright, but could not say where he was. Sadly, he couldn't tell her if his brother was OK, because he didn't know, himself. (Both he and his brother made it home safely after the war.)
Wade did add that when he was fighting "on the ground" they would dig trenches where they would spend the very long nights guarding against the enemy. Wade said that they were so close to enemy lines that, 'you couldn't light a cigarette or even cough.' These young soldiers tied a rope around each others' waists so they could tug on it to keep each other awake without speaking or making a noise. These boys, who were my boys' ages, did this all night, fearful of being killed or taken prisoner. He grinned and said, "I was always glad to see daylight come!"
Another part of the interview revealed that his initial job was to care for Army pack mules in the hull of a ship headed overseas. He said he guessed they wanted him for this task because, being a farm boy, he was experienced with working with horses and other animals. He grinned as he told the boys that it was a nasty, smelly job.
He started to warm-up to the undivided attention in the room. His stories were fascinating. As he went into their bedroom to retrieve an old shoebox full of fringed black and white photos of him and his buddies during wartime, (a bunch of skinny wide-eyed youngsters leaning against military equipment, just goofing-off during free time, arms around each others' shoulders, or surrounded by smiling, foreign children) I looked over at Ruth. She was beaming with pride. "Has Wade ever shared these stories with your children and grandchildren?" I asked? "No" she said. "In fact, when Saving Private Ryan came out in the theaters, we wanted to take him to see it, and he refused to go. He's never spoken about his experiences with anyone, except me, until now. It's so good for him."
When he re-entered the room, he smiled as he sat on the couch between my two sons and showed them pictures, memories, parts of his life. It was a moment that I will never forget. Happy Veteran's Day.