My mom's dad passed away back in February. With the grieving, the newborn, and the move, I wasn't able to distill my thoughts here at the time. But now his internment at Arlington National Cemetary is finally approaching--yes, that's how long the wait is--and I'd love for you to get to know him a little.
He wouldn't have been described by most as a big softie. He was the kid of hardworking Croatian immigrants; he spent teenage years underground, mining with canaries and a headless ghost that he just loved to tell wide-eyed grandkids about. He was forged in the high Arizona desert, in Depression and in wars and under a legendarily formidable mother: the Kasun boys were throwing a football inside once and it landed in her soup. My great grandmother paused in her chopping to saw the football in half with her butcher knife.
He was gruff and kind and he liked his wine after dinner in a plastic cup with two ice cubes. And when he abruptly stood up from his after-meal catnap to go take care of some chore, he'd always hum the same bar from some big band song : Hmmm, hmm hmm hmmmm...
Apparently he was a guy who often said no. That's hearsay to me, but I believe it. You don't become an infantry lieutenant colonel, decorated for valor, by being just agreeable. You don't survive decades as a public school history teacher as a wet noodle. You don't live as a Christian Republican in Humboldt County, California, by being a doormat. But for a guy with a strong "No", I sure remember him saying yes to a whole lot.
He said yes to helping with plane tickets so his Army brat grandkids could come see him, every year for twenty years. He said yes to keeping ponies and horses and a big house and to front yard camping in his old olive drab tent. He allowed paintball and trail-cutting and the other occasional newfangled things we'd disturb his peace with, and he always made us feel well beyond welcome, much-loved. He said yes to us tagging along with the occasional golf game and trying out our new driving skills in a cart, though he preferred to walk the course. He said yes to his own stubborn urge to fix a hole in his roof during a howling winter storm while in his 80s. He did his steady part to keep their little bitty Arcata church going, wearing pristine robes and saying Morning Prayer every week. He took in my family's beloved German shepherd and chuckled every time he told the story of Chief chasing the UPS guy up onto the hood of his truck. Years later he loaded Chief's quiet body into the back of his truck--that maroon Nissan that he was too stubborn to replace the power steering fluid in--and that was the first time I remember seeing him cry.
He and my grandmother made their house into ours when my dad spent a year in Korea. They made us feel like we weren't disrupting their retirement, but rather they were pleased and honored to have us. For a year. They let us get a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters. (Trotsky promptly and repeatedly knocked up Amelia Airheart, who would escape whenever her litter drew near, always to be found in the nick of time. I don't remember any grandparent complaints.)
He did say no to a certain elaborate archery game in which we grandkids were, essentially, shooting at each other. It was the angriest I've ever seen him get, and we were kind of terrified and kind of impressed with ourselves for having made him lose his cool.
He was much larger than life to me. As we grew older and the stories he told turned from the pranks he used to play in high school (pranks which would now be considered, um, misdemeanor-ish), he told us so much of the world. His company being split in half one night and him leading the rest to complete the operation, tricking a thousand enemy troops into surrender. Shrapnel in the back during a tank charge and months in traction (he didn't really mention the "conspicuous gallantry"). How the Korean general he advised during that war would have his own soldiers shot for misbehavior. How, driving through East Germany to their home in the American sector of Berlin, his kids would have to use the old pee-in-a-bottle trick because they weren't allowed to stop. How he really hoped that after he died, nobody got the wrong impression from the gun cabinet full of Nazi paraphernalia in the darkest hallway of his house: war trophies, mostly taken from surrendering German officers. I only remember him mentioning the two Silver Stars once, and all he had to say about the nomination for the Medal of Honor (not awarded to him) was that, well, he had lived. In those days that was your reward.
Finally he even showed us pictures from the "work" camp he helped liberate, of skin-and-bones bodies stacked like wood. How the townspeople said they had no idea, but oh you could smell the death. Landsberg, just one of many.
My grandmother, Papa Joe's wife of 59 years, was a formidable woman as well. (I'll tell you the story about the sledgehammer and the Salt-n-Peppa tape some time, but also about her writing, speaking, teaching, musicianship, activism on behalf of both humanity and nature, and all while wearing fabulous tall boots.) I hear that their disagreements were rare but truly things to behold. I can't easily sum the pair of them up, and I think this isn't just standard ancestor-worship speaking, but: Grandma Jackie and Papa Joe were really something.
The week after my grandma died, he got in a car wreck, that little maroon Nissan T-boned on the most dangerous stretch of highway 101. A 90-year-old with his femur in pieces. Extended hospital stay. Intubation and aspiration pneumonia. All the trappings of a long life probably coming to a close. But he relearned how to swallow, relearned how to walk despite the pain. My husband and I visited him in his rehabilitation center a few months later--oh, how he loved the fact that I married an infantryman!--and the place was nice but you could still faintly smell how often it was the end of the road. The nurses said he was their favorite patient. A couple of days later he rolled right on out of there and back to his home, where he presided with grace, stubbornness, strength, and his usual foibles for four more years. He stood up at age 92 as best man in the wedding of a friend half his age. Visits with his four great-grandkids and news of the fifth one's birth. He wanted us to nickname Evangeline "Vangie" because "you can't shout "Go Eva" from the side of a soccer field!" We're keeping that option in our back pocket, Papa Joe.
We're leaving his ashes at Arlington next week. Their redwood house, the one that to me was so much of a home, belongs to someone else now. Those last four years, and really the last many years of hardship as he dealt with the slow deterioration of physical health and the sickness and death of his wife, seem not like a life stretched out in painful unacceptance of what comes for all, but rather one lived to its fullest. My picture of him is incomplete for sure, maybe a bit rosy around the edges (but wouldn't every grandfather count that a success?). It's my own personal mythology pieced together from the scattered memories of one grandchild of his ten. But it's the strong heritage he and Grandma Jackie created for us under the hand of the One whose business is turning things to good.
In 2009 after leaving the rehab center (above & below):
In 2010, with 7-month-old Evangeline:
In 2011 (she's 2):
For other impressions of him (especially as a teacher), it was a pleasure reading the many pages of comments left in this Guest Book.