Wednesday, January 4, 2023

A New Reckoning

When I set out to write about the story of my grandfather's tour in World War II and his life leading up to it, in a way I knew the story that I wanted to tell: A man devoted to his country, his family, his men; a man who served honorably from the beginning to the end who quickly rose in the ranks of the Army for his good behavior and devotion to duty and came home with an unblemished record that he would hang on the wall for his family to see for decades to come. This was Stanley Grimes: the hero that I described a few years ago in my introduction to this series, and I was to proudly retell all of it.

I wonder now, if someone were to take up this mission to retell my life... what would they find? Would I be proud of it all? Would there be some things that if written after I were gone, may require explanation? That I may want to clarify? Why for example, was my brother sent to an emergency room at 1:00 AM one winter morning in Cincinnati because his brother (me) broke one of his bones in a violent rage? A generation from now would it be concluded that I was an angry and violent person without control of his impulses? It would be a logical conclusion for sure, but completely untrue? I'd like to think so (stay tuned for the cliffhanger of what really happened). 

It is with this caution that I am now forced to take on the retelling of my grandfather's story. The deeper I have dived, I have come to know my grandfather more as a man. Not the perfect and unimpeachable officer that I'd always imagined as I stared at that faded picture of him in his uniform in North Africa.. And as I learn more about him the more human he is and the more I have fallen in love with him and his story. 

After many months of waiting on a professional researcher (of whom I am not one) to dig into the National Archives and send me the records of my grandfather's enlistment in the CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Great Depression program which put young unemployed men to work) I'd begun to give up. Month after month I waited after all NARA facilities had been closed due to COVID-19. It was my one chance to get a critical source of information on his time in the CCC. Sure, I had done research on my own: reading books about the CCC, sifting through digital copies of the newsletter which was put out monthly from his unit (in which I learned he contributed to its publication and took an interest in the arts), read old newspaper clippings about his camp , scoured every corner of the internet for possible information... but it was a piece which was missing. So I finally decided to write it off. I wrote up a story of my grandpa which was teeming with his altruism, devotion to duty without any catches; his desire to send money back for his family. Literally 15 minutes before I was going to publish it to this blog, I got an email. It was from the researcher. 

In a fit of excitement as a child who just received his Ovaltine Decoder in the mail (Christmas Story reference anyone?) I opened it up. It was all of his official records from the CCC. His reasons for joining. His age and physical bill of health. Yes he did forge his birthday to sign up early! This was always a story in my family and here I was now looking at the proof! His time served, duties, interests, classes he took, assessments from his superiors, all of it. Finally I could tell the story I knew I wanted to tell.... And then it came. His discharge.... my world started coming apart as I read the documents:

Stanley Grimes. Dishonorably Discharged. Desertion. Not present at time of discharge. Not once. But several times. Final pay remitted to Ft Douglas, Utah. No transport necessary from Arizona to Indiana as enrollee was not present. Enrollee advised of non-eligibility for re-enrollment. I felt like Ralphie in the bathroom finally decoding the secret message: "Don't forget to drink your Ovaltine!"

What??? This honorable man. This man that was and still is the example of character and a selfless existence to me in my life?  It couldn't be right. As I read those words on the page I first began to question if they pulled the right man's records and after I was convinced that was not the case, I began to question the whole endeavor of why I was writing what I was writing and if my whole vision of the selfless man was wrong after all. How could this be true? Why would he not have told me?

It took me some time to digest this information. Was my grandpa a derelict? A wild man? A deserter? What would have brought him to leave his post weeks before his tour was over? The true answer: I don't know. And I don't think I ever will. I can draw conclusions, sure. I can gather from what I know he was going through, what his life was like, and with his blood that flows through my veins come up with some explanation that I find plausible. But what went on in Stanley's mind in those days in 1937 are now lost to history. 

If he were here now would I even ask him? I don't know. Would I want to take the role of some sort of investigative reporter out to uncover some embarrassing or controversial portion of his life or decision he made? What would he think of this line of questioning? Would he be proud of it? Embarrassed by it? Entertained or amused by it? I'm not sure. And it's with these unknowns that I now continue to tell his story. And despite the uncertainty I now believe it to be more real than the one I originally thought I wanted to tell. 

Postscript: if you were wondering if I am a barbaric bone breaker, the story of my brother's 'broken bone" goes this way: I was peacefully asleep in the middle of the night and was rage-fully confronted by my older brother on a mission to elicit a false confession of breaking something of his, of which my response was to throw a random kick into the darkness which happened to land on one of his fingers and by good fortune break it causing him to whimper out of my room like a defeated puppy. I'll let you decide who the maniac was in that situation. 

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