26 October 2011

The Tempest and the Tea Kettle

I've been thinking a lot about death recently. And not merely the affect one's death might have on oneself.  Death: the termination or extinction of something. The death of a season, of a mood or a period. The death of a relationship, of a friendship, of a hero. The termination of an adventure or a hope. The passing of summer into autumn, from life and vitality to lethargy, decay.

But on a much smaller scale, I've been thinking about the death of an individual. Setting aside all thoughts of life after death, why does death affect us so much? It is not so much the snuffing out, the abandoning of natural life for a new existence. It is the absence we feel the most, and I've struggled with writing this post for weeks. How do you eulogize someone you love dearly?

My grandfather died two weeks ago. His memorial service was held one week ago. Yet, despite the time slowly trickling in to fill the gaps, I feel as if I have not mourned him properly. My thoughts are like the tempest, trapped inside an egg-shell thin tea pot with no chance of escape. Since his death, I've found my thoughts becoming more and more scattered, like the rubber shavings from a partially erased drawing.

Even now, I can feel that I am not doing this right. So bear with me as I attempt to describe why the Major meant so much to me.

My earliest memories of him go back to the time when they are mere impressions and snippets - polaroid snapshots, not high-definition film. I remember the kangaroo on the back of the RV he and my grandmother stayed in when they visited us. I remember the feel of gravel shifting under my feet as I make my way to the steps where they stood. I remember vague impressions from my Dad that the Major was a Good Man. And I remember the firm, fully engaged yet completely relaxed "thereness" when I sat in his lap.

Every year on my birthday, I call my grandparents to thank them for their birthday gifts, and every year, the one I look forward to is the Major's call. The Baskin and Robbins gift cards slowly transitioned into Barnes and Noble or Borders cards.

And I was growing up. One year, I called the Major, and asked him to tell me his story. It was for a class assignment: I had to interview someone about their life, and write a paper. The Major was the only one I was brave enough to call.

He was born in 1922, but lied about his age so that he could enter World War Two, carrying on his family's tradition. The Major (though he was not one yet) was set to work supervising the building of air force bases in the Pacific Theatre. In one notable instance, the base he was assigned to build in 30 days was completed four days ahead of schedule because of his ingenuity.

When I asked him about his most vivid memory, the Major spoke softly about the October of 1944. The ship he was stationed on was stuck on a sandbar in the Phillipines, carrying a load full of highly flammable and/or explosive materials. Included were tinfuls of carbite, a material that, when exposed to water, releases highly explosive gases. Due to an incredible "coincidence," the Major was not in his bunk one evening when a kamikaze struck that portion of the ship. Flames spread to across the deck and into the hold, endangering the gasoline, oxygen tanks, dynamite, grease, rags, and other construction materials stored above and below decks. The Major was tasked with taking care of the 90-some men burned by the attack, who, as he recalled later, were so badly burnt they didn't realise they were injured.

The Major re-enlisted after the war, and was eventually placed in charge of a battalion of the Army Corps of Engineers. During the Korean War, when his battalion was sent overseas, the Major was placed in charge of building the only nuclear power plant in Alaska. He retired from active duty in 1961, continuing to serve in the civil service until 1972.

By the time I entered the scene as a squalling infant, the Major had retired into a comfortable, if quiet, life of Tom Clancy novels. As I grew older, we began to connect over books. We began recommending books to each other around the time I was ten, with the knowledge that the other was extremely unlikely to ever read the recommendations. After all, I could hardly expect a World War Two veteran to read poorly written pulp fiction about girls and their horses, and he could hardly expect me to read brutally written books about political manoeuvring and war. But as the years passed, I started to read his type of books. I'd tell him about the Communist Manifesto, or the Wealth of Nations, or another book that I'd started to read. He took a great deal of interest the year I was debating about US isolationistic policies. The fact of the matter is, the Major and I had a strong, if quiet and often overlooked, connection.

I remember when he came to the Northwest for my brother's graduation and Eagle Scout ceremony. I remember driving with my parents past the house the Major used to live in just outside of Forks, Washington. I remember, this last summer, visiting him in Florida.

He told me I could look through his book shelf and see if there were any I was interested in. But he couldn't part with the ones I requested when the time came. I remember the last thing I said to him. "I love you, Grandad. Be good."

I've been thinking about death a lot recently. Death of a relationship, death of a presence. The Major wasn't so much as a constant figure in my life as a comforting, strong presence always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. When I hear military news and scandals, something inside me always asks 'what would he think?"

And now, that presence is gone. I can't carry on as I once did. I find that I miss him terribly.

1 comment:

  1. "[...]And so if firm be our belief
    When comes the cruel test,
    The more we suffer in our grief,
    The more have we been blessed.
    Loss writes on life's long ledger leaf
    The riches once possessed.

    -Edgar A. Guest "Loss"