My grandfather Buck was born in 1922. That makes him 94 this year. He is still going strong, or so I hear. You see, I haven’t spoken to him in over 15 years, and I know I never will again.
As far back as I can remember, I viewed my grandfather as a near mythical man: imposing in size at well over six feet, built like a tank, and with the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen. His square jaw was almost always set firmly and was never without a fresh high-and-tight haircut.
From what I can recall from my youth and from the stories pieced together, Buck was a US Marine drill instructor on Parris Island during World War II, and then did a tour in the Pacific. Again, from what I recall there were stories of his team clearing foxholes with fire, but he rarely, if ever, talked about that part of his past. He had five brothers, four that served in the Marines, Navy, and Army. You want the Greatest Generation? This family was representative of that era.
After returning from the war, he was a local cop just outside of Boston, and then found a career as an iron worker. We were never told why he left the force, but from what I can gather from the stories of child trauma from my mother and her siblings, what would now be called PTSD most likely caused a lot of behavioral problems.
I remember spending hours in his basement as a kid. It was a machinists heaven. He had welding equipment, dozens of saws, drill presses, and every conceivable bit, blade, and byproduct of steel. Wrenches, sockets, stacks of hammers, files, and punches were all neatly organized, while piles of scrap wood and metal filled every corner. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to learn how to use all of those tools.
There were 5 or 6 motivational posters of sharply dressed Marines: “We don’t promise you a rose garden” was my favorite. The eyes of the warriors in those posters are what captured my attention. These were the most fearsome men I had ever seen, and I wanted nothing more than to be like them when I grew up.
But Buck never wanted that for me. He wanted to raise his family, see his grandchildren on weekends, and hope that we would never have to go into the armed forces. I believe he had seen to much and lost too many of his friends. But as I mentioned, he never really spoke of those things to us.
I’m sure he would have been proud if I did follow in his footsteps, but, being raised in a non-gun household the military was just not part of our daily context, and the drive to serve was not instilled in me. I went to college. Got a job. Settled down. Those life choices are not the point of this story, though.
Buck owned a three apartment house, called a “triple decker” by us Bostonians, in a relatively run down section of what was once a great city, Chelsea. He offered me and my then girlfriend the middle floor to renovate and live in. We gladly accepted. Midway through the renovation, Buck got it into his head that we were somehow conspiring against him and wrote us a pretty nasty letter saying that we would have to finish the renovations on our own. It came out of the blue with no provocation, but we chalked it up to him just aging. That was all fine, and I hoped that at some point it would all blow over.
About a year later, some of my belongings were taken from a shared back hallway, most likely due to the low life that was living above us. I wrote a letter to both him and my grandfather asking for the belongings back, or to provide info on what might have happened to them, with no hint or accusation that they were maliciously stolen. I honestly thought it was a big misunderstanding. I received an eviction notice from my grandfather the following morning, claiming that I had “disrespected him for the last time.”
Walking down the flight of stairs to his apartment where I had spent some of the best times of my childhood, I approached him and asked him straight out “Do you believe that I would ever accuse you of stealing? I’m your grandson. Do you think I am that bad of a person?”
Without hesitation, and without breaking eye contact, he replied “Yes I do. That’s exactly the type of person you are. Get out.”
I will never forget the look in his eyes as he uttered those three sentences, nor the feeling as my gut turned to ice. And they were the last words he ever spoke to me.
It was soon thereafter that he sent a similar letter to my mother, his daughter, who had nothing to do with this situation, but in that letter he all but disowned her. I don’t believe they have spoken in over a decade either.
Regardless of what he did to me, his treatment of my mother was unforgivable. That ended any chance of a relationship right there.
Thinking about the man that I have become, I owe everything to my parents. But I also find myself much more a reflection of the best parts of Buck that I had always idolized – I do my best to be loyal, keep my word, and do the right thing above all else. I go out of my way to help others and stick with a job until it is done.
What I miss is the opportunity to get to know a man that could provide me with constant inspiration, guidance, and above all a glimpse into a storied history.
My parents visited recently and I asked my mother about his whereabouts. She didn’t know. He’s somewhere in the Boston area, maybe in an assisted living facility. Maybe not. We believe he keeps in touch with one of my sisters, but they rarely speak his name. It’s sad that after almost a century on this planet, a family member is all but missing.
I’m sure that my story is not unique, and everyone has family dynamics that are difficult to decipher. I’m not trying to repair any relationships or mend old fences. What’s done is done. If I could do one thing over, though, it would be to get those stories recorded, repair the damage years ago, and help carry the legacy of a guy that despite some tragic faults, inspired a young boy to be a better man.
If you haven’t been in touch with an older member of your family, but have the capability to talk to them before they pass, do it. If you see a vet in a coffeeshop, strike up a conversation. Don’t make my mistakes. Retain their history. Share their story. I’d love to hear them.
Regardless of our stubbornness, here’s to the guys like my grandfather. Hard-asses that, right or wrong, refuse to give up on what they believe.
I hope you find some peace, Buck, wherever you are.
Deidra BurkeMay 9, 2016
Our stories are similar in many ways, so much so that your print strikes a raw nerve.
I am a child of a career long military man. My father served 22 years in the US Navy which started during the Vietnam Era. He was gone most of my childhood life, seeing him roughly 30 days a year for the 7 years he spent in Vietnam. Eventually he retired as a Boatswains’s Chief Petty Officer. In my childhood eyes he was a real live hero and I blamed the Navy for his disappearance from our lives, all the while adoring him from afar.
It took many years for me to realize that although the military instills an unmistakable sense of commitment and responsibility into its personnel, that same sense of commitment and responsibility can severely lack on the home front. My father elected to spend so many years away from us and after the conflict ended he continued to hide from his home responsibilities as both a father and husband, while using his career as his excuse.
Year after year my mother protected our vision of him as a hero (albeit misguided). She did a remarkable job raising my brother and I nearly alone and being able to protect our god-like vision of him astounds me to this day.
I saw very similar traits in my father to what you describe in your grandfather. I saw a towering man (larger than life), strong eyes, massive presence (he would engulf a room the moment he walked into it).
As an adult I came to realize that this man, who was larger than life to me, was in reality a man who had so many adulterous relationships that I was faced at 50 yrs. old with a sibling I never knew existed. This wasn’t a one-off situation; it was his life-long commitment to his own ego or lack thereof. His subsequent disregard of his newest 40 yr old daughter simply added confirmation that the hero I believed him to be for all those years was in reality just not a good man.
I wrote my father off many years ago. Not for the misplaced vision I had of him but because I made an adult decision that this is not the type of person I wanted in my life nor would I accept the eventual hero worship he would instill in his grandchildren (my children) and inevitably disappoint them too. It was a hard decision that I’ve never regretted or looked back with an ounce of remorse.
I took self-respect away from that relationship and I’ve held it tight ever since. He taught me what I will not accept in my life or my children’s lives. A child’s illusions are their entire world when they barely spend an ounce of time with their parents or in your case grandparents.
You mention in your article that the eyes of the warriors in those posters are what captured your attention. Maybe, just maybe, those posters add a bit of reflective history to your own career choice and your unmistakable talent for translation of photo to emotive response.
In my opinion, History is never lost as long as even one person lives on to carry the tale or encompasses what they learned into their daily lives, even if we lose touch with the main character of the story.
MattMay 9, 2016
Thanks for sharing your story Deidra!!!
Matthew MellorMay 9, 2016
My story isn't right in line with yours, however, but I long to know my families storied past. I had two grand parents involved in WWII. One was in the Marine Corps. He did not speak about it at all, but I had a special bond with him. So when I approached him wanting to interview him for a school project, he said he was willing to share with me with a few conditions. We had to sit alone and with no one else present and I could not share his story until he passed. We sat down and I recorded his conversation and his stories. I understand why he did not want everyone in the family to hear his stories. He served his country well, but it had left a lasting impression on him. He was a harsh man and it came across that way and it was magnified as the years added on. We all remember the good times we had with him and celebrate that life still today.
My other grand father came from a family that owned a large machine shop in the Philadelphia area. Once the war was over, he vowed he did not want to be a part of the family business any longer (they had a governmental contract). He moved to Wyoming where I am originally from and actually ended up starting his own machine shop (not his original plan, but he was good at what he did). He became the black sheep of the family, they disowned him, and there has been a great divide ever since. I have not met any of my family from the Philadelphia area, and I have had a lot of thoughts about reaching out and connecting with them lately. I would like to know more about that side of my family and where I came from. My aunt use to keep contact with a handful of individuals that didn't carry all the bitterness towards my grandfather. However, she has lost touch with much of that family due to deaths and marriages, etc. I will try not to do that to my kids. I don't want a divide in my life to cause an unknown in the life of my own children.
This year, with these two men on my mind, I have attempted to do portraits of veterans. I have only been successful with one man, who served in both WWII and the Korean War. His stories are amazing. His passion for the life he has lived is amazing. He told me that he was once invited to schools to talk about his experiences. But he hasn't for many years. When he mentioned that, his demeanor changed and you could tell that it was a piece of him that he missed.