Posted by: dougery | December 27, 2010

Peering Through Smoke and Ash

My grandfather is a quiet man. I also rarely see him, given that my life has taken me to such exotic locales as Syracuse, NY and Chicago, IL which however way you feel about them, are not Hamburg, NY, the town my grandfather has lived in most of his adult life. Put these two facts together and I sadly realize I haven’t shared much conversation with a man who is pretty much integral to my very existence. Yes, we’ve chatted about the egregiously bad Buffalo Bills over the years (as given a constant as there ever will be) and on one occasion he stumped me by asking,

“So what will a one-year Master of Arts degree allow you to do, exactly?”

The above question is kind of misleading in that unlike your average financially stable if not outright successful non-humanities professional, no malice was intended, he was just curious. As curious as his wife had been when I showed them photos of the Colosseum I had taken while in Italy and she had asked “Why don’t they just fix it?”

I know some basic things about my grandfather, that he has was born on January 22nd, 1927. That he is a bright man though his education does not extend beyond high-school. That for much of his life he worked as a mechanic and volunteer fire-fighter. That I have never seen him with a drink. That he has been married to the same woman for 60+ years.

I also knew, however vaguely, that my grandfather enlisted in the Navy during WWII. He never really elaborated on this point–until this past Christmas when I finally teased out a few details from the naturally taciturn man.

It seems he joined the Navy because he  “did not relish the idea of spending time cowering in foxholes.” He was also nervous that he would not be accepted because he weighed an alarmingly slight 118 pounds (which may or may not be a misremembrance seeing as he is about my height and even at my painfully skinniest, I still managed a buck 40). That he enlisted at age 18, which puts us somewhere in 1945 and that he shipped out of Norfolk sometime thereafter. The voyage took his vessel (which he did not name) down through “the canal” and then on to Hawaii. I’m not sure where my grandfather was exactly on August 6th, but the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the subsequent bombing of Nagasaki 3 days later, had the desired effect of ensuring he would never see action.

I know it is not quite this simple but still, it is supremely odd to think that two of the most horrific and terrible acts of war in human history may be in large part responsible for me being here at all.

My grandfather then spent the better part of a year anchored off a Japanese bay (the name of which I did not catch when my grandfather was telling his story but from what he described it was vast and beautiful and I’m pretty sure it began with an ‘S’) where the seamen were not allowed to go ashore because “the Japanese living in the hills would not have known the war had ended yet and would shoot at them.” He then said how terribly bored he was to which I (hopefully with proper respect) responded “better than the alternative.” From there he traveled back to Seattle and promptly returned to western NY at the tender age of 20.

After relating this my grandfather buttoned back up, deflecting the conversation back towards others, his preferred method of conversation. Still, it was interesting to see into the past, through however small an aperture, if even for a few moments. Then staring around the room at a sea of faces who might never have been had history been just a fraction different.

reading: Infinite Jest



  1. That was lovely. I especially love that your grandmother asked why they didn’t just fix the Colosseum and that your grandfather told you so much without telling much at all. Beautiful post.

  2. Most interesting. I hope more to follow.

  3. I love it when my hometown gets a shoutout. Usually it is relegated to Seinfeld. I am much more honored that it found a home here in a much more meaningfull and heart-felt forum such as this. Also I agree with your grandmother. They should fix that damn thing!

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