Jason Huggins’ story (see the story on Page 1) struck a special chord with me because he was quite close to his grandfather who lived nearby, as many young people in our rural county are, or were, in the 1980s and 1990s.
As you’ll see, I was that close to my grandaddy, too.
I remember as we sat and watched NBC the first time bombs fell over Baghdad. It was the first time in my life (I was 12 or 13) that I saw my grandaddy truly look scared. I didn’t understand why.
My best friend’s older brother dreamed of being a fighter pilot back in those days. Top Gun was still quite a popular movie with the way it glorified war.
I tried to explain that to Grandaddy, the same Grandaddy who called our G.I. Joe toys dolls and tried to discourage our playing with them.
He just looked and me and said he had been to war and he didn’t want to send his grandsons off to war if there was any way to avoid it.
“The mood will change when the body bags start coming back,” he said. That war ended, thankfully, with few U.S. causalities.
I saw the same look in his eyes after Sept. 11. My eyes, due to a congenital birth defect, would have prevented me from serving in the military, but he had four other grandsons to worry about. And he was worried.
Grandaddy served in World War II in the European Theatre. He drove a convoy at night from Liverpool to Southampton, guided by two tiny lights to avoid Nazi detection. He began his career, as many boys from Pomaria did, with an infantry unit, but Grandaddy had a problem.
An old knee injury from an accident involving a load binder and logging on the family farm meant no matter how tough he was, he could not do the long marches in the infantry. The knee would not hold up.
A truck driver by the week and overseer of an orchard on the weekends, the Army put him with the motor brigade and he drove for the USO show before he was sent to Europe, driving entertainers, such as Bob Hope, as they visited the troops and sometimes he drove commanding officers around.
He spoke often of a commanding officer who forbid him to salute him while they were out on training maneuvers in the Mojave desert, but I did not learn until his final months with ALS that Grandaddy was speaking of a young George S. Patton.
Once in England, part of his duties included transporting troops and supplies to make ready for D-Day. D-Day. A day when those infantry boys from places like here ran off boats as cannon fodder. Many of them, of course, paid the ultimate sacrifice, including his best friend Rupert Koon whose body is buried at Normandy.
“Such a pretty place,” Grandaddy said.
And there but for a blown out knee could be (me) — was what he left unsaid.
Grandaddy did not talk much about his time in the service, preferring to leave the war over there as many of his generation did. He was not a pacifist and understood that we had to go fight the Nazis but he still was opposed to wars of choice or nation building or preemptive strikes.
If he were still with us, I know he would not have been in Pomaria last weekend to receive a medal for his service, though I believe that honor was well-earned by all the men and women in attendance.
For him, war and heroes meant one thing.
The true heroes were the ones who never came back.
My grandaddy, Pat Long, was head of maintenance at Newberry County Memorial Hospital, so some of you readers may have known him.
That blown out knee that helped him come home from the service led one day to his repairing a heart machine during an open heart surgery to save a patient’s life. He also put those driving skills from the military to use saving lives behind the wheel of the hospital ambulance at times.
I spent about as much time with him as Jack spent with his grandfather, probably more actually.
I learned a lot from him, things that have shaped me into the man I am today.
And today, Memorial Day, please join me to take a moment to thank those who served and those who continue to serve this nation.
Especially the ones who did not make it back.