Veteran's Day was a "floater" where I work. That means it's not a day we automatically get as vacation, but if we work it, we get to take another day off at a different time. I guess it's done that way to make sure we have enough coverage since we're open for business, but it does tend to make the day go by without giving it the true attention it deserves.
Even though this post is late, I want to tell you about one of the most special gifts I've ever received.
Born and raised in Italy, my wife's grandfather was sent to this country at the age of seventeen by his father. Two years earlier, Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia, and sending him overseas to America was the only way he knew to keep his boy safe. Italy required mandatory military service from all eligible men, and the writing was on the wall. The year he arrived in the United States, Italy withdrew from the League of Nations, and shortly thereafter, things started going south in a hurry.
He arrived here with almost nothing, and knowing not a single word of English. He got a job as a dishwasher, and learned English by watching five-cent movie matinees between the morning prep and the lunch rush. Serial westerns, mostly, from what he told me. Within the next few years, he became a citizen and worked his way up to become a cook.
On May 18th of 1942, at the age of twenty-two, he was drafted into the United States Army as a Private. He then endured a grueling, 19-day voyage to North Africa, one of thousands of men packed into a ship made to hold hundreds. They slept in 4 hour shifts because there weren't enough berths, most of the time in makeshift hammocks, and shipboard conditions were so unhygienic most men were sick by the time they reached their destination in Casablanca.
I don't know much about WWII and the North African campaign, and I'm sure that I show my ignorance of world history every time I talk to him. He doesn't like to talk about the war, or the part he played in it. Even now, I can see in his eyes that he remembers it like it happened yesterday, and I can tell that he has seen things he would rather forget. I try not to pry, even though my curiosity sometimes gets the better of me. I don't ask him about it much any more, not since the time I saw that my innocent questions had upset him to the point of tears.
I don't know what he experienced. I can't even imagine. But I do know this -- he fought for our country, against his own countrymen -- against the country where all of his family still lived -- because he was an American, and it was required of him. Yes, he was drafted. No, he didn't have a choice. But he did what he had to do, and he did it for his new country, and his new home.
A couple of years ago, he gave me these:
His dog tags and his ID bracelet. I thanked him, and told him that it was an honor. He waved his hand away like it was no big deal. Maybe it wasn't for him, but it certainly was for me.
I called him up on Tuesday, just to tell him I was thinking about him. Even though I never came right out and thanked him for those years of his life sacrificed to make our lives better, I think he knows how I feel.
And to all the rest of the veterans reading this: Thank you.
To end this on a humorous note, one of my favorite family stories is about my wife's great-uncle. He too, served in the US military during WWII, but he wasn't a grunt. He was a Navy man. He also had it pretty rough. How rough, you ask? Well, he served his entire hitch working as a bartender in an officers' club in Hawaii. At first I thought he was a little confused and actually remembering the plot to an Elvis movie, but he has the pictures to prove it. Go figure.