Oral History

My grandpa is out in the garage.  He’s been standing-up for the last four hours, while he refinishes a bench with a power-sander.  I suppose this is not that exceptional, except that he is ninety years old, and—despite having flown half-way across the country unassisted to come visit us—has decided to spend his vacation doing manual labor.  You’d think after twenty-five years of retirement, he’d have figured out how to rest, but apparently not.  I wish my dogs were in such good shape.

He’s also—naturally—still mentally sharp as a tack.  He started telling stories about his time in the Army during World War II the other night, and could still embellish with such details the name and hometown of the staff sergeant with whom he had a three minute conversation sixty-seven years ago about acquiring extra sheets for his platoon’s barracks.  My grandpa never got within a thousand miles of combat, but for me, his stories are still amazing.  Hearing him talk about being the sole white officer for an all-black unit—the military didn’t allow black units to have black officers until it integrated in ’49—had a few cringe-worthy moments for my politically correct soul, but was still mind-blowing.  He was there.  This was his world.

He continued on to tell me about some mysterious cargo he unloaded on a supply convoy to Brazil in 1942.  It’s not exactly the stuff of history books, but I desperately wanted to pull out my tape recorder; in a few minutes, he had moved on, and I can’t help but think that story will never be told again.  When I was little, all my friends’ grandparents had served; indeed, practically every retiree you would see was a vet.  At the rate they are disappearing, though, it occurs to me that my children will probably never meet someone from this “Greatest Generation”—and as a result, the way people like my Grandpa lived and served and died will be no more or less real or relevant than what we read in books about the Civil War or Wild West or Roman Legions.  I suppose for that reason, the idea of having my Grandpa’s voice digitally preserved—even if it’s just a story about a practical joke he played on the Captain during basic training—seems unfathomably value.

And then, of course, there’s the sociologist in me.  I’ve been spending the last three months trying to understand the worldview of people in the Amazonian jungle, some of them indigenous people born before their society even had contact with the outside world.  It’s a puzzle, for sure, but there are times when I wonder if the way my Grandpa sees my own country is any less foreign to me.  We had coffee with a friend of my father’s this week.  On our walk back to the car, my Grandfather asked “What does her husband do?”, at which point my father explained that, well, actually she didn’t have a husband, she has a partner, and the two of them have a child together.  He paused and thought for a bit.  He may have made it through the war, but this was still a new encounter.  Eventually, he said “You know, I’ve seen a lot in my life, and I’ve learned not to judge.  My mother never judged, and I think that’s why she lived so long.”  There is as much to learn from my Grandpa as there is from the Huaorani, I suppose.

I head back to Princeton tomorrow, leaving at 3:30 a.m.  I’m pretty sad to be leaving after only a week.  It’s always too short, no matter where I am.  I guess nomadism is inevitable now that I have people I care about scattered across three distant corners of the country and in three separate continents.  I only realized I needed to pack, unfortunately, at 9:05 p.m., and my Grandpa—who has been going to bed at 9:00 p.m. for the last thirty-thousand days of his life—had already retired to the guest room, where we keep all the duffel bags.  Not wanting to be the guilty party, I sent my mother in to retrieve one.  She told me she found him on his knees, giving thanks to God for his family, for being here, for being alive.

My Grandpa has lived to all his friends pass away and the world as he knew it turned on its head.  And yet, he tells me, any day he gets up is a good day.  He’s still grateful for everything. That is how you live to be 90, and still have power-sanding to show for it.

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