I’m Glad I Got to Say Goodbye, Pep
(Veteran’s Day 2008) In a few weeks, I will be on a plane to Iraq to assist the Iraqi Army in their training and missions so that the United States Military can leave Iraq.
I will spend the next few weeks with my wife and kids, working around the house, and taking care of any personal matters that I won’t be able to attend to while I am gone. Before doing all of that, I went to see my grandfather.
Pep, as I call him, is 85. He is towards the end of his life. His mind is intact, but his body is slowly failing him. His arteries are clogged from years hearty American eating; He lives in constant pain from the lack of circulation caused in part by mission after mission in a freezing cold B-24 Liberator during WWII. His hearing is on its way out, and it’s tough for him to see well.
He lives in a one bedroom apartment in Ware, Massachusetts which he shared with my grandmother for 30 years, until she passed away around Thanksgiving in 2004. Now he shares it with a Chihuahua. Mind you, it’s no Paris Hilton frou-frou type dog. His name is Chico and they go well together. They are both little, feisty, and not afraid of anyone or anything.
The temperature in his apartment is kept at a level that would rival some of the best saunas in the world, but he turns it down to a cool 80 F during the stint of my visit. I spend a lot of time sweating and thirsty. But it doesn’t matter. I slept on his couch which is reminiscent of the episodes Seinfeld when Elaine ends up sleeping on the couch at Jerry’s parent’s house. But that doesn’t matter either. It was important for me to see him.
I surprised him with the visit on Veteran’s Day by bringing him his favorite food; a three pound, live Maine Lobster. It’s realistic that this may be the last time I see him, and if it is, I won’t be able to return home for any funeral he might have. Depressing, I know, but, as a soldiers, we both know that this is a sacrifice we have made.
We talked about the war in Iraq and what I would be doing there. He has the WWII version of war, “Bomb the hell outta all of ‘em and get the hell home!”
Of course this sparks debate as I tell him how we have changed from a, “roll over the country and kill anything that moves army” to a, “win the hearts and minds of the populous and only shoot when shot at.” I go into detail about how I will be part of a team of soldiers training an Iraqi battalion. I try to sell him on the newest version of how to fight an asymmetrical war, where it’s hard to tell who the enemy is, and how loyalties lay with family and tribes not governments. He is an old dog not unwilling to learn any new tricks. “Kill those sons-of-bitches!”
We exchange war stories of WWII and my first tour in Iraq. He tells me how the “Goddamned Nazis tried like hell to shoot me outta the sky but the dirty bastards could never get the job done.” Or how they, “bombed the hell outta the Ploesti oil fields and then we would turn around just to watch those sons-of-bitches burn.” He did that seven times. I tell him about flying 20 feet above the Tigris River in my CH-47D Helicopter and show him the videos I have saved on my laptop but they just don’t seem to compare to his life’s adventure.
He shares with me the stories of his homecoming and how he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. It’s a big deal, but it’s a bigger deal in a small town like Ware. He had reporters following him and more than once threatened to beat them up if they didn’t leave them alone. He had gone to the movies a few times, only to end up ducking down on the floor to make sure he wouldn’t be hit by whatever was blowing up on screen. That was the end of his movie-going days. It was there version of PTSD, but back then, there wasn’t an answer on how to fix the problem. They just lived with it, buried it deep in the subconscious and had more steak and potatoes.
We talk about dreams we have from combat. As a pilot on my first tour, I didn’t see a lot of action. I had ended up in down town Mosuel a couple of times and was part of a few weird incidents. I have dreams about flying over the desert sometimes. We were shot at a couple of times, but nothing ever came close. The dreams are nothing to get excited about, just memories coming back. His dreams are different.
They are of the German Fokker’s being so close that they pilots would wave to him. They are of other bombers being shot down or blown up right in front of him. They are of friends not coming home after their sorties were complete.
My stories don’t hold a candle to his, but he happily shows interest in them. I have heard his stories countless times since I was about 10, but I never seem to get tired of them. I will miss those stories when he is gone.
We talked about the new president and what we thought about it. We both voted for McCain. “I never thought I would see the day that we would have a colored president,” he said.
He doesn’t mean anything by the term, “colored”. It’s like having my own Archie Bunker. It’s just the era he was brought up in. We both agreed that Obama is in a unique position. He could be the best president we’ve ever had, or the worst president we’ve ever had, but we hope that things in the United States get better and that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end soon and we give him our full support.
Later, I connect to the internet and make a video call to my wife and my parents. For the first time, he uses the internet to call and talk to someone. He doesn’t know what to say. It’s a weird feeling to talk to someone over a computer and see them at the same time. Mostly he says, “Son-of- a-bitch.” A term regularly used by the old-timer to display amazement.
We sit and watch television and enjoy each other’s company. He likes the court shows like Judge Joe Brown and The Peoples Court. They certainly can fill an afternoon.
Toward the end of my visit, we decide to run some errands and the brakes in his car go out. It’s a Buick that is 10 years old and only has 50,000 miles. It sits most of the time so the salt and snow from the harsh Massachusetts winters have eaten away at the break lines. Fortunately, it happened when I was driving and a crisis was averted. I shudder to think if it happened while he was driving. Also just as lucky, the mechanic says he will fix it the next morning after I drop it off on the way to the airport and he will bring it to my grandfather as soon as the work is done.
It makes me think of how we age, become less mobile, more dependant, and small favors make all the difference in the world.
Later that night, bad brakes and all, we head to Snow’s to get a bite to eat. It’s the local seafood and beer joint. It’s one of those “must go and do while I’m home” kind of things. Most everything is dipped, battered and fried. It’s always busy and it’s always awesome! Get a Sam Adams to wash it down and your day will be made. I ask the young, 21 year old waitress to take our picture but my grandfather quickly quips that he doesn’t want a picture with me, but with her. She obliges and then takes the picture of the two of us. Only an 85 year old man could get away with that. If I said the things he said, I would have been escorted out for being drunk and disorderly. We limped his car back to his apartment, bellies full, cravings satisfied and ready for bed.
The next morning I head back home. As I sit on the plane it makes me realize how lucky I am to have him in my life. I was able to learn from first hand stories of WWII. It has taught me to appreciate what I have and how I will be able to keep in touch with my family and friends while I am gone. Even my cell phone will work in Iraq (for somewhere around $6.00 per minute, but it will still work). It makes me appreciate the family and friends that I have, hoping that I will be cared for the way he is if I make it to 85.
So after over two years of being on the road 200 days of the year, after not living together for that time, after 70 days of training away from home, and an impending one year deployment to Iraq, my wife and kids made the sacrifice and let me go to see my grandfather one last time before I deploy.
Thanks. I love you.
On February 14th, 2009 my grandfather, Frank Gibbs passed away, quietly, as if it were planned. He laid down for his 10:00 am nap, before his weekly caregiver arrived. At 11:00 am, she knocked on his door, let herself in, and found him, laying peacefully, in a better place, with Chico by his side.
I miss you Pep.