My Grandfather and the War

January 28, 2010
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They say that war is hell, and I always believed them.
I never knew my Grandpa before the war, but they said he had been different, then. They said he had smiles that would crinkle the corners of his eyes and giant laughs that boomed through my grandparent’s tiny house like thunder. They said he would play and joke with the kids and that he was unbearably sweet to my Grandma, and that ne never, ever frowned. But that was before I knew him, so I took their word for it.
It was true; the war changed him. He always moved alarmingly silently, even in his old age and he rarely talked to anyone but my Grandmother for more than a few minutes at a time. He hid from crowds and never went off the property. He slept separate from my Grandma, in the basement, so his insomnia and constant nightmares wouldn’t keep her awake. He was always restless. The only place he truly seemed like his old self was in his garage, where he fixed up old cars for resale.
They said the war made him callous and harsh. They said the war broke his spirit. But I never believed them. I spent many a day sitting on the cold, metal desk in the garage, watching him work. I know from the way his fingers gently stroked the barn cat that he was not harsh. I knew from the way he always listened to me, no matter what I had to say that he was not callous. And I knew from the way he occasionally sang old hymns in time with the radio that his spirit was not broken.
The war changed him, yes. But it never broke him.
If anything, it made him stronger. My Grandfather went to the war agnostic and came home a tried and true Christian. Even though he never bowed his head with the preacher, his never once missed a Sunday service. My Grandfather didn’t believe in group prayer; he once told me that when it comes down to it, it’s only ever you and Him. My Grandmother told me that he picked that up after his best friend was gunned down standing right next to him, and he was left virtually alone right in the midst of battle.
The only time I ever saw or heard my Grandfather pray was in the garage. My younger brother, at this point only six or seven, had come in and asked our Grandpa if he’d ever killed anyone. His old, skillful hands never paused on his work.
My brother, so young and naive, smiled. “You kill a lot of people?”
My brother contemplated this for some time. “How many?”
“I dunno. I stopped countin’.”
“Why?” His little voice persisted. “Ain’t you proud of what you done?”
The old man’s hands finally still, and his body twisted to look at my brother. “Don’t your Grandma have work for you to do in the house?”
My brother’s lip jutted out in response and his eyes shined unhappily as he slunk away, as only scolded children can. I watched him go and crossed my ankles, resting my back against the giant corkboard hanging above the desk.
And after a long pause, my Grandpa went back to the car. His hands continued to work, jerking the wrench roughly, revealing his agitation. Soon, his gruff voice met my ears.
“If you want to know anything, now’s the time.”
I looked down at his slumped shoulders and his working, oil stained hands.
“You killed people.” I said.
“And I already knew that. It’s all I need to know.” I folded my hands in my lap.
He stopped working once more, and turned to me. “That’s it?”
“Yup,” I replied. “But if you want to tell me anything, now’s the time.”
We stared at each other for a while, and I watched a muscle in his jaw work. I imagined all those words he’d kept bottled up inside for so long, crowding his throat, filling his lunges. His dead friend, killed right in front of him. All those lives he took by gun or grenade. How hard it was to readjust after coming back.
He set his wrench down and wiped his hands on his even dirtier blue jeans.
“Come pray with me,” he said.
I was not one for public prayer, or even church, for that matter. But I got off the desk and sank to my knees in front of him, taking his outstretched hands in mine.
I won’t tell you what he said, even though I remember every word. But you should know that it was the longest speech I ever heard him say.
And years later, while my husband of seven years watched our children toddle around the yard, I sat in the same place on that desk, listened to the same songs and watched those same hands coddle engine parts and coax them into place.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“Why God? After the war, why God?”
He placed one hand on the hood of the car and gave me a tiny smile. “Most men lose their faith after being in war. Is that why you want to know?”
“Well, yes,” I responded.
He set down his wrench, I gesture, I’d learned, that meant he believed he was to say something important. I leaned forward and put my elbows on my knees.
“They told me that war is hell,” he said. “And I thought I knew. Now I do know. It is hell, Joy, and I ain’t goin’ back.”
I blinked as he picked up the wrench and started humming along to an old version of Amazing Grace.
The day he died, he left us each a letter; my grandma, my mother and her siblings, and all the grandkids. We all sat, crowded in my Grandparent’s tiny living room of that little house and read the letters. First, out loud; then, to the family.
My Grandma elected me to read hers. She cried when he apologized for not being the husband he had been. Everyone else cried when he apologized for not being the father or grandfather he could have been.
Lost, I left my husband, kids and crying family, and wandered into the garage, clutching my unopened letter.
I took my seat on the desk, in the room that now felt so empty and lonely without him there. I removed the papers from their envelope. His letter to me was the longest out of anyone’s, though I never admitted it. I won’t tell you the whole thing, because I believe some things should stay private, but I will tell you this;
“When in war, they told us, every man fights on a team, but at the end of the day, you’re playing alone. That weapons make a man strong and bravery is killing someone before they kill you. They told us that when in a bad situation, grit your teeth, dig your boots in the ground where you stand, and pray to God you don’t die today.
“I think that life is war. That every day holds some sort of fight, and you may never win. That you fight on a team of your family, but at the end of the day, you’re still so alone.
“Once, you asked me, “Why God?” Well, I found that when you’re with God, it’s not so much like playing solo anymore. It’s like you’ve got the best damn gunman in the world at your back every second. I’ve learned that strength is putting down your weapon, and coming home, and that bravery is being able to stand up in church every Sunday after killing men, and saying that there is a God who will take you into his arms and say, “Son, I forgive you.” That in a bad situation, you can grit your teeth and dig in your heels, but you don’t have to be afraid of dying, because you know where you’re going next.
“Joy, I know you’re not real sure about God. But, maybe, someday you will be. You’ve got a real talent for writing. Use it to do something good for Him.”
And after I read that, I got on my knees and I prayed real hard. And, even in the wake of my Grandfather, a great man’s death, I didn’t feel so alone. Like I had someone else playing on my team. Like I had the best damn gunman in the world at my back.
The war changed my Grandfather, yes. But it never broke his spirit.

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