I seriously considered not doing a post at all this Sunday because of the Memorial Day holiday. So much respect is due to the men and women of our Armed Forces who gave their lives for our freedom. I didn’t want to say anything to detract from their awesome sacrifice with my usual humor and ramblings.
Then my mom, in her always infinite wisdom, reminded me that the time is always right to honor the memory and legacy of people who paved the way for you. And she reminded me of two special World War II veterans who made it possible for me to be here today—my grandfathers: William and Levi.
William is my mother’s father. To me, he is just “Grampa.” Born in West Virginia in 1917, he was the 2nd youngest of 9 children. Because his family needed his help, Grampa dropped out of school in the 10th grade and began working in the coal mines. He met and married my grandmother, Alice-Ruth, and was drafted into the Army Air Corps the very next day. Grampa and his brother were sent to training in Utah. Because he was so light-skinned, the officers assumed he was white and assigned him to the all-white living quarters. Because he didn’t want to be separated from his brother and promised his mother he would never pass for white, he told the officers that he was colored. He was punished for “deceiving” them and sent to the colored quarters to rejoin his brother. All his military photos were edited to make him appear darker from that day forward. He was eventually stationed in the Philippines where he served as a cook in the segregated platoon for 3 years. While he was away, my grandmother moved to New Jersey with her sisters and started working in a factory in Bloomfield where she made television tubes. He returned and joined her there. He got a job at the Ford Motors factory in Mahwah and worked there until he retired. He borrowed books from the Colored-only library and taught himself to be an electrician to gain promotion at the plant and make extra money on the side.
By the time I was old enough to really remember Grampa, he was already retired and spent his days giving rides and running errands for family and friends. He drove me to and from school almost every day from the time I was 5 years old until I graduated from high school because our family only had one car, which my father got up at 4am and drove to his job in Lakewood, almost 2 hours away, for his 7am shift. He shuffled and shuttled all of us where we needed to go but he never complained. Well, that’s not 100% true – when Grampa got antsy and ready to go, he would pace around and jingle his keys. We knew if we weren’t in the car by the time he started the engine, we might just get left behind. And his car was always a Ford—in fact, I didn’t know anyone else made cars besides Ford until I was a teenager. Even now, my Grampa drives a Ford; although at 94 years old, he’s not driving all that often anymore.
Levi is my father’s father. He was born in 1921 in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He left home to attend college at Lincoln University in 1940, but was unable to finish because he was drafted into military service. “Poppie” served in the first group of black paratroopers known as the Triple Nickels. During his time of service in Europe, he met my grandmother, Joyce. A 6 foot tall, red-haired, blue-eyed white woman. They married within a few weeks of meeting each other and became pregnant with my father shortly after. Poppie returned to segregated Arkansas a few months after my father was born. It took almost 10 years for him to raise the money and gain the permissions to bring my grandmother and father to the US. Then the real struggle of being an interracial couple in America during the late 1950s, early 1960s began. Poppie eventually moved his family to Newark, New Jersey and started work as a welder. He invested his money and began acquiring property, which he renovated and rented long before “flipping” and renting houses was the cool thing to do. He went to school and learned to install and repair heating systems so he could do all the maintenance on his properties. At the age of 65, he sent himself back to school
to learn air conditioning repair so he could “diversify his skills.” Meanwhile,
my Nannie worked in a factory until rheumatoid arthritis took over, making it
too difficult for her to perform the fine motor skills needed to do the work. Once that happened, she was a housewife. And Nannie always honored her British
heritage with high-tea every day.
Growing up, I remember Poppie working long hours almost every day and getting home on summer evenings just in time to give all us grandkids money to get ice cream from the Donald Duck truck who stopped at the corner between 7:30 and 8pm. Poppie always smelled like “work” to me – a sweet mix of sweat and boiler smoke. He taught me to appreciate fresh-popped popcorn (hence, “Poppie” as his moniker), gourmet jelly beans, Wheel of Fortune and vegetables. To get us to eat our veggies, he would tell us that leafy greens and limas made your tummy flip – then he would bounce in his chair and send us all into a fit of giggles every time. And we would eat our veggies so we could bounce like him, which I’m sure drove Nannie bonkers because she had pristine British table-manners. But at the end of the meal, our plates were clean. Except when Nannie served Brussels’ sprouts. No amount of jumping could get me to eat a Brussels’ sprout. Even today.
Together, Grampa and Poppie taught me loyalty, generosity, perseverance and the importance of hustle. They overcame life challenges that would have made most people give up to create lives for themselves and their families that was secure and full of love. And they did it without grumbling or complaining or taking advantage of others. Were they perfect? Of course not. No one is. But they didn’t blame their lot in life on their race or lack of social status or interrupted educational opportunities. Instead, they found a way to make a way. For that, they are true men of honor.
And this is what our service people do every day. They leave their families and everything that is comfortable and normal for them to serve our country. They put their lives on the line to create better for themselves and their families—and the entire world community. Most of them have names and faces and stories we’ll never know. The amount of bravery and courage that it takes to do that, knowing there will be minimal accolades in return, is unbelievable and unfathomable to me.
So this post is for all of our veterans and service men and women. Especially those who lost their lives in battle. And for my Grampa and Poppie, who’s sacrifice, service and life choices made it possible for me to be.
I salute all of you. God bless and keep you and your families. Today and every day.
I invite you to share the stories of the special veterans in your life with me here.