The Greatest Generation And The Dirt Road

Anyone who knows me knows I venerate (all you public school graduates will simply have to look up the meaning of the word) my grandparents. I especially venerate my grandfather. He was in many ways as much my father as my dad was. My dad served in the U.S Army his entire adult life. He died in a car accident with 24 years of service. A tour in Vietnam, numerous other assignments and a sincere devotion to drink kept him from a normal family life. My grandfather, may he rest in peace, willingly stepped into the role of substitute father. He was truly part of the greatest generation.

At the tender age of four he began tending crops with his parents, owners of a small farm in east Texas. When he was old enough he joined the Navy. Because of extreme seasickness he was transferred to the Army where he served in the field artillery. When the Army formed the Army Air Corp he got himself transferred into the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force. He went with the Army Air Corp when it became the Air Force and retired from the USAF with 23 years total service.

In my family grandpas world war two service (the first four years in the Pacific then transferred to Germany in Jan 1945 where he stayed through the Berlin airlift) was something talked about quietly when he was not around. In the innocence of youth I had always thought of WWII as some kind of job. Get up, shower, eat breakfast, go to war, have lunch, go back to war for awhile then go home. I had no idea what a war was. It wasn’t until we studied WWII in history that I learned the truth about the second world war. Then, in my innocence I pictured my grandpa, rifle in hand, charging at the enemy who turned tail and ran away in fear. After all, this was the man who chopped of the heads of the rattlesnakes that always seemed to be living under the riding lawnmower. It was my chore to mow the lawn and I cannot ever remember a time I didn’t have to call on grandpa first.

Later my curiosity finally got the better of me. I think I was twelve, I asked Paul (my grandpas name) what he did in the war. At first I thought he might not answer me. He finally told me he had been a crew chief. I had no idea what a crew chief was but since he was a chief I figured he had to be in charge of something. I probed some more. “Well,” he offered “it was my job to make sure my plane was fixed and ready to go when it was needed.” He smiled a little then added, “B-17, B-29, B-25, even some fighters, there was nothing I couldn’t fix.” His smile suddenly faded as he added, “Well, almost nothing I couldn’t fix.”

The almost nothing comment grabbed a hold of my curiosity and would not let go. “What was it you couldn’t fix, grandpa,” I asked full of childish naivete. I remember to this day the look of sadness that overtook his nearly always joyful demeanor. I didn’t understand it at the time but I think I do now. In that moment, he had gone back to those dark days. He was there, reliving something he had worked long and hard to forget. In the quietest voice I had ever heard him use he said only, “I could never clean up the blood.” He put his hand on my skinny little shoulder, looked at me for a minute and then went into his room. Unsure what had just transpired but knowing I had been dismissed I went into the living room and sat down. A few minutes later grandma came out and said it would be best if we didn’t ask grandpa anymore war questions. The look on her face made it more like a royal commandment. It was a request I would honor for the next 25 years.

Sitting on the couch, neck deep in my blessed youthful ignorance I was thinking of some poor guy getting cut on a piece of metal and bleeding a bit on the floor of the bomber. I could not square that image with my grandpas remark. After all, when I had crashed my bike and slid halfway down Red Wreck hill, losing most of the skin on my left side, it was grandpa that carried me into the bathroom and cleaned and dressed my wounds. I had bled a lot that day as he pulled out pebbles and blacktop from my open wounds and grandpa never flinched. It wasn’t until much later that I learned many wounded airmen were allowed to bleed out and die in order to save another plane with less fuel by allowing it to land first. A crew of thirteen men can leave a lot of blood on the floor.

When grandpa retired he got a job as a jet engine mechanic in Dallas. It was a great job that had the advantages of paying well enough for him to live out in his beloved country and being something that he loved to do. On the downside it was a ninety-mile commute, one way. Still, there was one co-worker who lived even farther out than grandpa. To minimize expenses he would drive to grandpas house and ride to work with grandpa. Grandpa would pick up two others on the way in to work. To make the whole thing work he would get up at three am. Unable to contemplate three am as a child (I hated getting up at six am for school) I once asked him how in the world he could get up so early. “Whether I like to get up so early or not is not important,” he said, “it needs to be done so I do it.” Classic grandpa.

The man who taught me how to drive at age twelve (much to grandmas frustration) also mislead me on how to buy a car. As grandpa nearly always worked six days a week and sometimes seven days a week he put a lot of miles on his cars. Every year he would buy a new car. He took me with him once. We drove to the Chevrolet dealer in the small town ten miles down the road. As grandpa pulled into the parking lot a man came out to greet him. “Hello Paul,” he said as grandpa handed him the keys to his car. “Time for a new car?” Grandpa said yes and the man told him to look around, when he found what he wanted, just let him know. A few minutes later grandpa settled on a four door Impla. We went inside and the man gave him the keys to the new car, said the paperwork would be ready tomorrow and asked if that would be okay. Grandpa said yes and we drove off in a shiny new car. For longer than I will admit to that is how I thought people bought cars.

Whether it was making sure I had fed the cows before school or done my homework grandpa was always there. A lifelong practitioner of self-reliance, every moment was a teachable moment. If something broke you fixed it. If you couldn’t fix it then you hired the best man for the job and paid him a fair price. One of the things he excelled at was patience. He often took me and my brothers swimming at the local lake. Once he gave me four quarters for the juke box. At three songs per quarter I picked Bostons “More Than A Feeling” 12 times. Thinking he might not appreciate that I only chose the one song I asked him if he was okay with that. Smiling at me he asked, “Is it the best song in there?” I piped up right away, it was (and still is) the best song ever. “Then you did good.” I felt like a million bucks right then. The fact is grandpa was a big band fan. I suspect the music blaring across the lake that day meant nothing to him and was probably quite annoying but you would have never known it by looking at him.

I remember him making me come inside from playing on the day of the Apollo moon landing. We watched it on a 13 inch black and white tv set. He was so proud of what America had just accomplished. I remember sitting with him on Sundays and watching grandpas “Cowboys” play football. While I don’t know if he ever played football he would explain the game to me. I played in high school and Tom Landry is still one of my heroes.

The first time I heard the song I knew Grandpa had journeyed through his life on Sawyer Browns famous “Dirt Road.” He taught us to respect our elders, study diligently (not hard, there is a difference), stay out of trouble, work hard when required, work smart always and do it right the first time. While he never went to church he had a vast knowledge of scripture and would sometimes quote a passage or bible story to illustrate a point. He taught me to never confuse what is easy with what was right. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from him was that some things are wrong simply because they are wrong. He helped me develop my love of history, reading, football (I am still a Cowboys fan) and coffee. Although he managed to make and save a lot of money he never became enamored of it. Instead of living the high life he preferred to go fishing with us kids, sit in his easy chair with a good book, go for walks on the country road he lived on (our nearest neighbor was a quarter of a mile away) or have a cup of coffee on the porch in the morning and feed/watch the birds.

As I look back on my fifty some years I realize there is a lot of him in me. I too have spent my life on that dirt road and that is fine with me. Despite my best efforts with my kids and grandkids I can’t help but feel like a pale imitation of my grandpa. Todays silicon valley addled, five second attention span, politically correct indoctrinated young people have no idea what they have lost or how far they have fallen. The humble, character building dirt road has been replaced by the slickly marketed electronic superhighway of instant gratification, electronic anonymity and basement dwelling zombieism. I find that to be truly tragic and, more than anything, I miss my grandpa.

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