Previously published in The Washington Post.
I thought about you when I watched the new hit movie Red Tails that gives a long-overdue Hollywood tribute to the glorious Tuskegee Airmen you used to tell me about. Whenever Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day prompted me to ask about your military service, it always came down to your witnessing those unheralded Tuskegee Airmen.
“Those boys could some mo’ fly,” you used to tell me. “Those boys would get up there in them planes and really show out. They had all kinds of tricks and dips…The Germans were scared of ‘em.”
As an Army man in the infantry, you were content to serve on the ground. I remembered your stories of drinking and playing cards, patrolling the bars keeping other American servicemen out of trouble. Nothing spectacular. You were not a glory-seeker, in no way driven to excel in battle. Your highest hope, your daily goal, was getting home to your family.
“I had Baby to get back to,” you would say, referring to your bride, who would be your wife for 72 years. You are definitely a hero in my life, and in our family.
As the movie began, and I wondered which of the war heroes would get killed before the movie ended. I felt suddenly more grateful that you had made it home. I remembered you bringing my first bike, a little red two-wheeler you taught me to ride without training wheels. I remembered the life skills you taught in Dominoes marathons at your dining room table. Play the hand you get. Adjust. Strategize. You can win even after a losing start. Stay in the game. Enjoy! I remembered the Christmas feasts, and the $20 bills you slid under the plate of each of your ten grandchildren. (That was a lot of money back then – especially to a kid sharing parents’ limited resources with nine siblings!)
I am so glad you made it home.
Looking at the youngest pilot in the movie, I was reminded that you were very young when drafted to serve in WWII. You and your bride having migrated to the District of Columbia from Georgia just a couple of years prior to your draft, meant Grandma was left, pretty much alone. For two years she did not know whether her husband was coming home. She laughs about it now. Says you told her, “if you can’t be good, be careful.” But the loneliness must have been challenging for her at the time.
When the movie depicted one of the pilots falling in love overseas, I considered how the war tested, but obviously strengthened, your marriage in ways neither you nor Grandma could know at the time. Your 72-year marriage is your medal of honor in my mind.
You and Grandma conquered the years of loneliness and doubt, the disagreements, mistakes and misunderstandings. You built your lives together. Maintaining your individual careers by day, playing in bowling leagues, rising through the ranks of the Masons and Eastern Stars together, making ordinary marks of modest achievement on your way to an extraordinary milestone. I bet there are fewer 72-year marriages than there are war heroes. So, here is my salute to you – you and Grandma.
Using modest means, you built homes together, raised your children together. You danced till wee past midnight, then got up and went to church – together. You sang in church choirs, served as deacon and deaconess for decades together. You worked your backyard gardens into your 90s together. You enjoyed and nurtured your grandchildren together. So here’s to you Granddad.
The movie did not depict your experience in the war. It missed the nuances of the ordinary men determined simply to make it home, but one movie cannot herald all the heroes. You are my hero. I am glad you made it home. I am sharing this letter with the public because I am sure there are a million more granddaughters – and grandsons – who feel absolutely blessed just because you made it home.