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Thursday, July 28, 2022

PROLOGUE

Mostagenem, Algeria. February 1943. 

 

0150 Hours

 

The recently promoted Sergeant of Dog Battery, Stanley Grimes knew it his duty to stay back and man the 50 calibre while his young recruits enjoyed their first days overseas at the bars in downtown Mostagenem, an area where a soldier with a few whiskeys in him could find his night going sideways in quick fashion with the local girls who seemed like goddesses after those weeks on the boat and even more back in training in Virginia and New Jersey. Despite it being February it already felt like summer in Algeria and the sandy beaches and commotion in town of all the freshly arrived troops made for an excitement that even though a war was going on inevitably led to a feeling among the men that this was some form of extended vacation in the exotic tropics of Africa. Just months earlier, Casablanca had enthralled the country and now Stanley and his men were walking those same shores as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the film. But Stanley had a young bride at home and a sense of duty which kept him at that gun while his friends went down the hill and had their fun. As the gunner on the 50 cal, he maneuvered  the barrel down towards the harbor of Mostagenem and saw the ships anchored quietlytheir lights dark under the blackout orders but could vaguely be made out against the moon which caused the Mediterranean to glimmer and the moorings of the ships to occasionally flash as the inevitable one or two lights from the city reflected on their metallic surface. The night was silent apart from the faint sound of the surf against the rocks down the cliff side at the shore.

 

The crew and mission of a 50 calibre in an anti-aircraft battery was a special one. This was a gun not meant for heaving flack shells randomly into the sky during a raid, their large bullets were meant to make calculated volleys at enemy aircraft that would slice into the fuselage and bring the target down as they came in too close for the 90 mm Bofors AA gun to hit. Tracer rounds let the gunner of the weapon know he was close or off target. These guns had a crew of four: a gunner, an assistant gunner, an ammo man and a water man. This night Stanley sat in the gunner’s chair and looked into the night sky and down at the harbor. He thought of his training in Ft Bragg, where he learned the basics of combat; how to handle a side arm and his M1 Carbine. He remembered the drills in which blank rounds were fired over his head to simulate the stress of combat. But even more-so now: his classroom training back in New Jersey in which he learned what an ME-109, Ju-87, Ju-88 and FW-190 sounded like in the sky, what they looked like, how they maneuvered and attacked. As the Sergeant and gunner it would be his call when to engage even though there were C-47s and friendly aircraft overhead at seemingly all times. He kept an eye on those ships. The glimmer of the sea under the waxing moon which he wished would hide its face beneath the clouds. 

 

0212 hours

 

From the battery Radio Man: 

 

"Red Alert! Red Alert! Red Alert! Able Battery Sector 547 reporting 15 miles northeast of Mostagenem. Enemy aircraft. 15-20 Ju-88s incoming at a heading of 195 at 4000 feet. Repeat: Enemy aircraft incoming! This is not a drill! Over.

 

Stanleys fingers tensed on the trigger and his adrenaline began pulsing. This was it. What all those years away from home and in training had been leading toward. As if an actor repeating his memorized lines, he called out:

 

"Examining Gun!" as he checked the sights of the 50 cal and that a clear view was established, "In order!" He called to his 3 man crew. 

 

Stanley's assistant gunner, remembering his until now unused training after nervously fidgeting with the weapon called out in succession: "Bore and Cables in order!" Indicating the weapon was ready to fire and could maneuver in any direction necessary to shoot. 

 

The number three or ammo man now checked that the ammunition chests were in order and the 50 cal bullets were loaded in the weapon and more was on hand to feed if necessary. "Ammunition in order!" he shouted. And now on to the next man

 

The number four man was in charge of the water chest. This man ensured that the weapon would stay cool when in action and in checking turned the crank to be sure that water was circulating properly in the machine. 

 

"Water chest in order!" he yelled to Stanley. 

 

This quick drill; this one which they had practiced so many times in Virgina over the past several months, was now a reminder that they were now in Africa; that German aircraft would soon be overhead; that this was not a game or training. As Stanley felt the cool steel of the trigger on his fingers, he remembered Mary Lou. Of how they got caught on that country road in that storm last summer when Deweys car had broken down in Indiana and how beautiful she looked in her dress soaked in the rain; of how he hated Indiana but now how much he wished he was back there. He looked up at the sky and pretended he was back there for a moment. 

 

0229 Hours

 

Stanley leaned into the silence of the night. The hum he heard he was not sure was in his imagination or the enemy he'd been training to see all these years. And then it began. Able Battery positioned to the northeast up the coastline began reporting with their 90mm's. At first Stanley heard the shots and could see the muzzle-flashes lighting up like fireworks in the night. Then in the air he saw the explosions. One after another they went off and the night became day. As the flack lit up the sky he could see even at several hundred yards three tight V formations of Ju-88s bearing down on the port of Mostagenem. His adrenaline rushed at the thought of them getting nearby and his training raced through his mind of how many bombs they heldthe speed at which they traveled, and when and how they attacked their target. These were the infamous ‘Schnellbombers'  (fast bombers) that were versatile enough to serve as bombers, dive bombers, fighters and night fighters (and towards the end of the war, human torpedos). They were among the most menacing craft in the Luftwaffe and after all these months seeing them in the sky brought him almost to tears of fearfulness. In some way he was glad that most of his buddies were down in Mostagenem at the bars. They were safe. This was a job for the Sergeant of the battery.  

 

As the formation passed Able Battery the sickening feeling approached him: he was next. Whether they were after his position or moving on to the harbor he could not have been sure. Dog Battery, positioned 5 miles to the southwest on the coast would be the last line of defense before the bombers were over the port of Mostagenem. He and a few 50 cals and the big guns of the 90mm AA. It was his time. 

 

The night, now brilliantly alight with red tracers, blue incendiary rounds and blanketed with the bright yellow and orange flickers of the flack explosions made Stanley wonder how any sane pilot would keep coming at them; how these planes had pilots whose mothers cared about them and that their mission seemed all but suicidal. A few hundred yards from shore a round from Able Battery had made its mark: he could see the wing of one of the planes catch fire and he watched in wonder as it banked right and dropped into the sea. He felt sorry that they had made the choice to fly into this storm of steel. But now he began to finally understand why he was here: in this life and death conflict neither side was heading back. 

 

Stanley's mind raced back to the trainings he had on the distance and angle to fire on a Ju 88 traveling at a given speed. His finger squeezed the trigger and the weapon issued its ordinance deafeningly into the sky and he watched as the bright red tracerevery 5 shots flew upwards where he had aimed. He could see his Battery mates reporting with their 90mms as the V formations began bearing down on the ships moored in Mostagenem. As he saw the 88s dive and the ships catch fire in the harbor he no longer felt sympathy for those German pilot's mothers. He squeezed the trigger of the 50 cal and hoped he'd find a target in the sky if only to save one of his American brothers on those ships in Mostagenem. His ammo man exchanged the box and the water man kept cranking while the barrel began to glow red

 

What was only 12 minutes seemed like hours and the rounds Stanley fired into the sky he was never sure made their mark. But the might of what he and all of the batteries of the 67th CA put in the sky made him feel like America could not lose. The news articles he'd read of the German advance being turned back in Russia. Stalingrad. Kursk. It was soon to be over he thought. America had a foot planted in Africa and after a few more months he would be home. As the barrel cooled on the 50 cal and his heart rate came down, Stanley thought of Mary Lou. That little house in Kentucky. How funny it was that a boy like him was in North Africa shooting at German planes. But it would all be over soon. 





Thursday, July 1, 2021

Introduction

My hope from this series is that we would be able to remember a journey. It's a journey which colored a man's life. Which I knew from his stories as a child lit up his eyes, but in a way which expressed caution. This journey he was careful not to relate as 'fun', because it wasn't. What is fun about not knowing if you would have your life in the morning? If you are going to come across a man dismembered from the waist and wonder what his mother would have thought at the sight? No, this journey was not fun. But it was one which defined a life.

My grandfather passed away at the age of 90 in the year 2009. He joined the military in 1941 and served overseas in the second world war for 4 years. He deployed to North Africa only 3 days after getting married, but maintained a commitment which brought him back home to a wife in Kentucky who waited for his return. They would go on to raise a beautiful family, two daughters and two sons, one of whom would be stillborn and one who was my father. This family has now produced 7 grandchildren 10 great grandchildren and a legacy which will walk this earth forever.  

In the year 2006, I started a journey of my own. Much less epic that his, but one which shaped my life in different ways. One of my freshman year English class projects was to create a 'multi genre' themed piece of writing which captured something close to me about which I wanted to learn more. After much thought, I chose 'Pop'. I was always intrigued by his stories. The way those few years shaped his whole life. About what a humble man he was even though he'd been part of the most epic struggle in human history.

If he were around now, I feel I may have the knowledge to let him know just how much I appreciated his story. Sure, I loved the man, but I did not know what a giant he was until after he had passed. He was in a generation that saved our whole race from tyranny. That stepped up and served because it was the right thing to do. That lived a life which served a greater good and not oneself. Pop was a hero. And I always knew it, but I knew it because he bought me toys at the 99 cent center, that he gave me a crisp new $5 bill from the bank every time I went to his house, that he walked me through his garden and plucked the best tomatoes he'd grown that year for me to bring home (although I didn't have the heart to tell him I didn't really like tomatoes). I always new, but boy how much more do I know now. 

Though this multi genre project, I set out to record a video interview of him. I sat down with pop for an hour and spoke with him about his journey in the war, his life, his stories that I'd always heard but never recorded. It was a clunky interview. I now listen to it and laugh at my sometimes silly questions, the self centered way in which I felt I knew his story (I was a WWII 'guru' after all) and just wanted him to fill in some minor details. I wish that I could go back and do it again, but often life only affords us one time to do things like this.

So I now have this interview, and despite its faults, it's one of my most prized possessions. It's not just a story of a veteran of World War Two... it's pop. In his element. With granny in the kitchen and the wind chimes making those familiar clangs which I knew so well from all of the days I spent there. As a freshman college student looking to fulfill a piece of my English project, I didn't notice those things at the time. But now as I look back at it, they fill me with so much joy and bring me back to Granny and Pop as they lived on West High Steet. In the home in which they raised my father and the Grimes family of whose name my son now carries on. 

This story follows a man's journey which in terms of years was just one small slice of his life. But on the whole, colored all of his decades as it did for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who served in those few vital years. I hope that through this we will be able to remember him a little more. To remember his friends, his brothers in arms and those who they left behind at home like pop's young bride Mary Lou. This was a time which we all stood together. A time which defined everything. But more so, I just want to remember pop. His smile. His unrelenting love for garage sales. His overflowing toolshelf. His artistic ability which inspired my dad, my brother, myself. His ability to take naps at any hour of the day on that comfy couch in the family room. This is for you pop.

NOTE:

I have tried to recreate a story which is as faithful to pop as possible. Some aspects of this story forever must be relegated to our imaginations: I do not know what was cooking in pop's house the hot summer night of June 17th during Franklin Roosevelts fireside chat. I do not know what specific projects his CCC group worked on in the summer of 1936 in Arizona.

Through his recounting, first hand accounts of those that were with him and in a few cases, personal experiences of my own, I've tried to retell a story which could have been pop's. I have been careful not to create a new or alternate history, but I have at times made him come to life in ways which I can only say although informed by my knowledge of him as a man and of the history of the time, came purely from my mind.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Vida Colorado: State of the Union

Don't worry folks, this isn't a political post. I am not going to weigh in on the ripping up of speech transcripts, a refused handshake or any other shenanigans which you see tuning into the news these days. This State of the Union is about the small and obscure corner of the internet I have been working on for almost ten years now that I call Vida Colorado.

It all began as a diversion as I sat alone in my temporary home in Ken Caryl as a brand new Coloradan just after I moved here. Jobless and with few possessions, I was ready to start a new phase of life and had no idea where it was going to head. Ten years has aged me in ways I never could have known and brought me to places I would never have dreamed. I married my wife, started a career, moved to (and back from) Las Vegas, traveled to so many beautiful places, welcomed my son into the world, and maybe most significantly, saw Taylor Swift live in concert.

This blog has evolved over all that time along with me: in subject matter, in my writing style, in my use of SEO and digital marketing. Over the last 10 years over 35,000 visitors have stopped by... no, it's no Buzzfeed, but not terrible engagement for a guy that doesn't really know what he's doing and is just having some fun. First of all: thank-you. I don't keep this up for the page views or for any sort of popularity or recognition, but it is nice to know that some of you are reading and have stayed engaged. It's humbling if nothing else to know that you want to keep reading. Midway through this whole thing I totally revamped this into a travel blog, and per the graph below, you have been much more engaged. Turns out you like hearing more about sunsets, road trips and good wine rather than my political rants. Message received.


But in addition to the totally different subject matter, I've tried to keep to some general theme. So in 2016 my blog began to become more of a single story than a random assortment of thoughts that popped into my head. Given my tendency towards ADD this served to both keep me engaged with consistently writing posts, and you engaged with actually caring and reading, or at least that's what the data seem to show. But now that story is over (for now), what's next?

More posts will follow that you could call a 'preface' and/or 'introduction' to this story, but I'll provide a brief status update on where this stands. It's one which exists mostly in my head right now and I am not rightly sure how it will end up. It's the story of my grandpa, 'Pop'. I first thought I had a good idea of what this would look like: a story of a World War II soldier, colored by some first hand accounts and some books that I've read on North Africa, Italy and the Western Front in 1944-1945. But the more I began to dig, the more to this story I found was there.

There were the letters. A whole shoebox full of love letters that he wrote to my grandma during his time away from her after having married her days before shipping out. The newspaper articles in the Brookville Democrat which captured how he and his neighbors may have felt as war began to rage thousands of miles away. The 'morning reports' from his unit commander that told what he did every day of the war during his three years in Africa, Italy and France. This hole was deep, but how incredible it has been to dive in. I thought I wanted to write about World War II. But now I know that it's Pops story I want to tell.

So as I tumble down into this hole, know that I haven't closed the doors on Vida Colorado. This next story I have to tell will be the most significant one I've ever told. And since I did not live it myself, I can't just bang it out as if I were recounting sailing in Ha Long Bay, or crossing over the Tiber River at sunset, or finding a foxhole in Belgium 75 years after all of the shells fell quiet. Thank you for being engaged and going on this journey with me. I will always remember the chilly day in November 2009 when pop left us here on earth, but I hope I can help his story live on, if even in a small way.