Some may have anticipated a story having to do with the photo I posted earlier. While a story about the tiny human we transported would be worth the telling, my thoughts tonight are with a slightly more… “experienced” member of society.
Occasionally, in the carrying out of my job, I have the pleasure of meeting some really interesting folks. Tonight was one of those times. For obvious reasons, I will be doing my best to dance around certain specific details of our visit. My partner and I were finishing up a run of the mill transfer to a nursing home.
His room looked no different, really, than many others I’ve encountered at nursing homes around the city. He was old enough that there aren’t many folks alive older than him on the planet. His body was failing after all these years, but he seemed to be of a ready mind and a good spirit.
After helping him to his bed I noticed something on the wall nearby that looked like a certificate or plaque. I asked him if I could read it. “Sure”, he said.
“Let it be known it is with deep appreciation…”, it began. It was then I noticed the seal of the state of Michigan at the top. I read on. “(My new friend) achieved an impressive Naval military record serving in the South Pacific from Pearl Harbor to Japan. For his efforts, he received the Bronze Star Medal for the Battle of Midway. He was also present for the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri on September 2, 1945. As a Navy Reserve Man, he was called upon again to serve in the Korean conflict from 1948 to 1951. In 1951 he was again called to service and received China’s Presidential Citation for his work on the Formosan Conflict.”
The certificate went on to speak of his post-military life, raising five children, being blessed with 12 grandchildren, retiring from a profitable career in the auto industry after 30 years and spending most of his remaining days dedicated to volunteer service in his community.
Normally, I would have more than enough to ponder and write about if the story ended there. But it doesn’t. He had been quiet while I read the certificate. As if he knew what was coming next.
PEARL HABOR? MIDWAY? THE SIGNING OF THE SURRENDER??? You were there???
He talked a bit with us about his military experience (you know, Midway, the Japanese surrender, Bronze Star Medal, blah, blah…). Then he paused and mentioned a specific date:
July 31, 1951
He said it as if the mere mention of the date beckoned forth a time machine instantly transporting him back to the ship on that day 62 years before.
“It was quite a storm”
Storm? Everything stopped.
“See that book?”
He pointed over to a nightstand. There, on a beat up clock radio was an old worn journal with a cloth cover. As I walked over and picked it up, I began to see written in pen were the words “War Diary!” Suddenly, I held that book as if it were a museum piece. Something like that should be off limits, shouldn’t it? Preserved. Under glass. Not sitting on a beat up clock radio in a nursing home.
A book that old, that personal, you just don’t “open”. You pause. You soak it in. You feel the size and weight of it in your hands. Noticing the stains and other writings on the cover as you begin to separate the pages. You lean in to smell the history contained in its pages. I smelled the Pacific.
“Do you see a piece of tape marking a certain page?”
There was a single piece of tape. Marking a single page. A certain date.
“Good. Go back a page and start there. Sunday the 29th. Read.”
I turned. I read. Aloud.
“Sunday, July 29th. Water is calm just before the storm in which we are to hit sometime tonight. We’ve had reports of waves 40 feet high and the wind 120 miles per hour. This remains to be seen. Now off shore of Singapore, China.”
What happened next? I felt like Fred Savage in the Princess Bride.
“Tuesday, 31st. “What a day! Waves 45 feet high. Wind 125 miles per hour. Ship rolled in 25 to 40 degrees. Everything overturned. Time was 0200 to 1000. Everyone woke. Waves washed away two life rafts. I dried off a thousand times.”
I looked up from the writing to look at his face. He was back there, alright. Listening to me read his own writing. Remembering so much more than was contained on that page.
He referred me to a few other pages. One was a hand drawn map of an area of North Korea. An entry from July 18th talked about having “two Sundays”.
“Yes, sir. I went to leave my post and was told to return. Sunday wasn’t over yet, I guess. Something about us crossing the international dateline.”
Another, dated September 8th, 1951 told this story:
“General quarters 0300. Plane from carrier failed to take off and crashed 200 yards. 719 picked up survivors. Four men. They stayed aboard over night. 1500 – went alongside carrier for fuel. Carrier sent us over 500 pieces of ice cream for our crew for helping last night.”
Ice cream. That’s how they paid back the crew of his ship for rescuing four survivors of a plane crash.
An entry after my own heart: “Band making progress. Four guitar players have begun a hillbilly band. Yesterday I played bass fiddle for them. It sounded good, of course.” A few days later: We now have a pretty good band. Saxes, piano and drums and I on bass fiddle. I am, of course, the star attraction because I can play all the instruments including the trumpet and guitar.”
Other entries told tales of Chinese fishing boats, oil tenders, good food and drink, payday ($36), getting his teeth worked on by navy dentists, playing baseball in a Japanese stadium and the news of the death of Admiral Forrest P. Sherman (July 23, 1951, by the way). But the most common entry? It had nothing to do with any of that.
“No mail, yet”
I closed the book and found my fingers tracing the words on the cover. Following the outline of the stains. I handed the journal back to him. He cradled it in his hands and got quiet again.
Mind of I share a bit of your story with a few friends of mine?
“Not at all”, he said, closing the journal.
“Tell ’em you met a real hero today.”
We shook hands and I suddenly remembered we were on duty and it was time to go meet someone else with an entirely different story.
This is my job. In the morning I met a tiny human just beginning his journey. We gave him his first “car ride”. We were in quite a rush. Maybe someday, ninety years from now, he’ll tell someone about what happened on his birthday all those years ago.
Later, in the evening, I met another human. This one was much older. Everything was moving much slower. This one had been around the block once or twice. Seen things. Knew things.
Two lives. Each at different points in the arc of a full life.
And in my book, both heroes.