Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Day I Had Drinks with a Hero...

April 1941, Pearl Harbor.

The newly wed couple fresh from the states live in a one bedroom house.

They share the shower, and toilet with 2 other couples. He a Naval corpsmen, his beautiful young bride the homemaker.

After being married a few months and living with family in a small, cramped California house, they journey thousands of miles and half an ocean's distance to finally live together alone.

Together in Paradise.

This is Oahu, April of 1941. Cane fields surround the lazy, sleepy town of Honolulu. Soft, tropical breezes stir through the palms drying out remnants of morning showers. The island was home to 50,000 service men but it still had jsut one traffic light.

Hawaii a US Territory, statehood nearly two decades away. The town has one road in and out; no skyscrapers, mega-resorts, or miles of lights, to wash out the stars of the night sky.

A time as foreign to us contemporaries as the surface of Mars.

On the morning of December 7th, eight months after arriving in Paradise, and a mere 30 minutes before "all hell breaks loose", a sailor gives his new bride a kiss on the cheek and heads of to another day doing whatever a corpsman does. She expects to greet her husband at day's end, with a home cooked dinner.

At work, a line of gray battleships - the might and power of the United States Navy - are tied off - "Battleship Row". They carry names of honor; Nevada, California, Tennessee, Maryland, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah and Arizona.

This sailor will be late for dinner.

His name is Jack and her name is Mary. Jack is my wife's, mother's uncle and is one of the few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors. It is always an honor to share adult beverages (yes, plural) with him. Jack is 89 years young.

His life story includes witnessing and surviving the attacks of Peal Harbor, evacuating his new bride months later on a troopship.

From Pearl he was ordered to Southampton, England to setup a medical facility in preparation for a secret "big push" in Europe - D-Day. His facility receives the casualties from the beaches of Normandy.

Not long after, he is ordered aboard a "tin-can", hunting German U-boats in the North Atlantic. He has a most vivid memory of he and his destroyer shipmates rolling along in swells, seasick and miserable, looking over at the sailors on an carrier, playing ping-pong on the fight deck.

Now a days, he lunches with his pals at Denny's or Big Boys - his "pals" include WWII aces, test pilots, Medal of Honor recipients.

He belongs to organizations whose rosters include men with the names of Yeager, Lindberg, Hoover and Doolittle - Jimmy Doolittle's grand daughter has been to his house often researching her next book.

His life is full of experiences, ghastly visions and terrible smells:

Memories of the battleship Nevada beaching directly in front of him on Hospital Point.

Bremerton bay from the deck of a shattered Enterprise.

The rumble and flashes in the pre-dawn sky of June 6th.

Rolling seas, frigid, arctic salt air, under a gray, troubling sky in the North Atlantic - do those memories sustain him and give him pause? Of course.

Yet, I suspect that those 8 months on Oahu, from April to December, memories of two young lovers in Paradise - I think those memories sustain him to this day.

He is a Hero. He does not think of himself as a hero, they never do.

He offers us his memories, his history, to sustain us, not him.

Jack is a "Living History Speaker".

He and a group of survivors visit schools and tell kids about December 7th and the War - refreshing. Alas, I fear, more kids have been subject to Nobel Prize winning Enviro-mercial, "Inconvenient Truth" than Jack and his pals could ever reach.

Very unfortunate, when considering the biggest risk Al Gore ever took was operating his cherry-picker.

Paradise Lost.


=======

Today is December 7,2010 - nearly two years after I first wrote the above. Today, Jack is at Pearl Harbor honoring the fallen of the day "that will live on in infamy..."

This will be the last time, the last December 7th, to hold an official ceremony.

Time moves and there just aren't that many Pearl Harbor survivors left.

Jack turned 90 this past spring - this summer, he flew in a old WWII training plane. He still speaks at High Schools and attends Veteran's Day, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations.

He is an American hero.

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1 comment:

  1. As I was dropping my 7 year old son off at school this morning, he asked how many days until Christmas...I told him the date, and he quickly told me "18 days!" I then explained how today was a special day too, and explained that it wasn't a Holiday like Christmas, but important to remember. It was difficult for him to understand something that happened so long ago, it's great that your hero is still able to share his story....

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