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.