My grandfather was in WWI. He planned to join the army after graduating from Butler (in Indianapolis), but at the last moment, as he told his fraternity brother in great sorrow, he was told he couldn’t graduate for lack of a History credit. The fraternity brother told the story to a History professor, who amended his course enrollment to reflect that Granddaddy had completed the course.
He drove various vehicles, and by driving generals around, saw plenty of France. At the end of the war, France offered free tuition at the Sorbonne for American G.I.’s. Granddaddy wanted to go, but he was assigned to drive the truck to carry bodies from battlefields to the cemetery. The crew which did the dirty job of moving the bodies was all Black. In his 80’s my grandfather could still recall some of the spirituals they sang (“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Swing Low”).
Fifty years later, my grandparents went to France. When they got a taxi to go to the cemetery, the driver didn’t know the way. It didn’t matter: my grandfather remembered the route, having driven it in the dark so many times.
He remained deeply patriotic. A leader in the local VFW, he often gave speeches on Memorial Day. I have his round dog tags strung onto a leather bootlace and war-time letters between him and his parents (“the bank where you worked has a star in the window for you”) and his letter offering to enlist in the Army in 1939. He was surprisingly naive about the politics behind WWI, insisting it was the War to End All Wars; though my brother and I knew it was much more complicated, we said nothing.
The photograph of him in uniform, treasured by his mother in a gilt frame under 1920’s style curved glass, now hangs in our living room. Facing it is the well-known picture of a Vietnam veteran with his hand on The Wall, remembering the images of those whose names are etched into it. In some ways, Memorial Day is every day of the year.