Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Speaker for Grandpa

Yesterday was Memorial Day, and though I already posted about the holiday this week, I have a bit more to say that strikes a much more personal note. But before I get started, let me offer two warnings. This post is something of a conceptual spoiler for Ender's Game. It's not a particularly bad spoiler--nothing you wouldn't get from reading the back of the sequel Speaker for the Dead--but if you are very spoiler sensitive, you may want to skip today's post. The second warning: this post is rather more serious than most of my articles on this blog. If you're new here, this post is an important link in the chain of my blog, but it may not be representative of the tone and content I strive to achieve here. I suggest reading some of my posts from this past weekend instead to get a better feel for Ben's Nerdery.

Seriously now, the spoilers shall flow. And probably also some sissy tears. You've been warned.

I've talked a little bit in the past about the profound impact Ender's Game had on me as a young fan of science-fiction. The drama and the kid-centric cast, the strategy and meditative tone, the spectacle of the battle room and the culture of the school, all helped it to affect me greatly. But nothing moved me quite so much as the concept of the Speaker for the Dead. The concept is introduced after Ender completely annihilates the alien Buggers threatening humanity and is confronted by the psychological immensity of what he did while conversing with the last queen of the entire alien species. It's a philosophical breakthrough for Ender, for the Buggers (Formics, to be politically-correct), and for the masses of humanity who read the Speaker for the Dead memoir and establish a cultural role around it. It's a cathartic moment of truth and acceptance, where Ender anonymously pens the misunderstanding from the aliens' point of view and in turn dispels the hatred, fear, and confusion left in the aftermath of his own actions. His work isn't just accepted as a way to honor the essentially-extinct Buggers specifically, it's also promulgated throughout human culture as a typical role at funerals. The Speaker for the Dead is a sort of investigator invited into the lives of the bereaved, hunting for truth and clarity. The Speaker isn't concerned with honoring the dead with flattery, but with objectivity and scrutiny, and when they speak at a funeral they share a sort of homily that conveys who the deceased really was--including their flaws, their secrets, and their impact on those around them. I find it a profoundly moving concept, and one I've carried with me for almost 15 years now.

Some time ago I mentioned a rather unpleasant experience where my wife, toddler, and I took a flight out to California. That weekend was for my grandfather's funeral--the last of my grandparents, and the one I've always wanted to understand and know the most. I never really got to know him all that well, but his legacy permeates my mother's family and everything I am today. And I can't think of a better time to be his Speaker for the Dead than the day after Memorial Day. It's worth pointing out that I'm neither objective nor an investigator, and I do want to honor my grandfather's memory with love as well as truth. So while I'm a poor Speaker in that sense, this needs to be said and would never be said by anyone else.

"Seriously now, the spoilers shall flow. And probably also some sissy tears. You've been warned."

When I talk about Grandpa, let's get an outrageous assertion out of the way: he's a greater hero than Captain America. I don't just refer to his heroic service in World War Two, but also to his legacy as a father and later in life as a stubbornly social and outgoing person. For the faults he certainly had--the ones I recall and the ones I'll never know about--I truly wish I was more like him, and I'll always feel like every mistake I make is falling short of his example.

Grandpa grew up in a patriotic family of four high-spirited brothers and three sisters. Each of the brothers were named after a president of the United States. No kidding. Grandpa was the second youngest of them, but that didn't prevent him from joining his older brothers in fights that always sounded to me like sober bar brawls. Their father also supported Germany in the 1930s, and as Grandpa's oldest brother saw the way politics were going at the end of 1941, he took it upon himself to set his brothers straight: they should not talk about their father and his political views to their friends. They would disown him on an ideological level. Grandpa was maybe 14 at the time. I can't fathom what that was like, and I thankfully will never have to. My greatest divide with my father is over watching subtitled movies.

Not only did my grandfather distance himself from his own father's views, but in 1944--at the age of seventeen--he enlisted, underage, into the United State Marine Corps, trained at Camp Pendleton, and was shipped out to fight in Okinawa, Japan. He fought throughout the close of the Pacific campaign, and in the process he brought back his share of incredible stories, scars, and a spiritual side delivered through an artillery shell. A side he certainly never had as a brawling German boy in Texas. He'd been sitting in a foxhole in the Pacific, huddled in the dark of night as bullets sprayed the area and a heavy barrage of artillery was tearing shrapnel through the air. He'd say that the artillery would come down in these arcs of ground-shaking explosions across the landscape. Boom. Boom. Boom. Tracing lines of craters as they demolished men in their foxholes. And he could here a line of death coming towards him, the shells raining down closer and closer to his position. Boom. Boom. BOOM. Thud. Just as the shells had zeroed in on him, a dud landed just feet away from him, within his own foxhole. And that's when Grandpa decided to talk to one of the chaplains in his unit.

"The Speaker for the Dead is a sort of investigator invited into the lives of the bereaved, hunting for truth and clarity."

He became a marine chaplain's aide, later going to seminary to become a Baptist pastor and raise a family in Southern California after the war. He married and had five children living in California. And then he got divorced, stepped down from the church he'd been ministering to, and moved to Texas. I never knew much about this more than what I just shared. Something happened, and growing up I knew never to ask my mother about it--a sage decision based on how she'd cry whenever I tried to pin down details. And as my Grandpa married a woman my mother's age in Texas and had three more children, the assumption in my mind growing up had always been that he had done something. He left, he abandoned my mother's family when she was in college and her two younger siblings still at home.

My mind naturally inserted slander to connect the dots of what I knew had happened and what must have led to it. There was no malice in it, and I wasn't even that far off in my conclusions, but they were still just assumptions, and I had nothing to put in its place in my perceptions until I was twenty-six years old. And even then, my mother could only share it with my wife--I've never heard the details myself. My Grandpa had been having affairs, and between his own guilt and the rumors, he soon was asked to leave the church in the midst of his marriage breaking up. With my grandmother raising the children, I suppose it was all he could do to get away from the stigma to head back to Texas, where he'd grown up.

My grandfather aged and lived his life in Texas, quite separate from the rest of my mother's family, for some time. I wouldn't say he aged gracefully, but he aged exuberantly. He rode horses and played pranks and was always a social bee. He got divorced a second time, had a couple of heart attacks, and finally a stroke drove him from his home in Texas back to California to be attended by his eldest daughter. I'd visited him a few times in Texas and knew him then as a head-strong crazy driver, a witty back-talker, and spoiling push-over who couldn't say no his younger kids or his grandchildren. But it was only after the medical problems, the wandering through his empty house and helping pack up his belongings, that I started to get a picture of the man. He was proud, ashamed of getting old, and had trouble letting go of the insanely fit young fighter he once was. The war still haunted him, especially so later in life as his health and focus declined, and above all he never stopped loving everyone he met. We'd be at a restaurant and he'd strike up a conversation with a bus-boy or try to hook the waitress up with my older brother. He never had trouble seeing the person behind the role or the function society placed on them--he always saw and addressed the individual in front of him.

Not long after Grandpa's stroke the World War Two memorial in Washington, DC was completed. My aunt and cousin brought him out to DC, where my family met them and spent the weekend touring the capital. Grandpa was only able to walk a few steps at a time, and even then he needed someone to hold onto him and keep him balanced. If no one was attending him, he'd lean progressively further and further forward, his short bow-legged strides becoming a faster and faster shuffle as he'd inevitably fall over. My cousin was a high-schooler at the time and she'd never exactly been built for helping one hundred sixty-pound septuagenarians around, so I took it upon myself to be his wheelchair chauffeur (and walker when he got too stubborn to point). I was eminently proud of myself that weekend. Not for the service itself, but for being attached to a man that I'd respected so much--and in a place specifically geared to honor him. I was his color guard--a slack, unfit civilian in glasses to guard a hero from Okinawa from falling on the concrete.

"...a head-strong crazy driver, a witty back-talker, and spoiling push-over who couldn't say no his younger kids or his grandchildren."

When we got to the memorial itself--the field of gold stars projecting out from the marble arc--Grandpa just had to get out of his wheelchair. Wearing a light jacket and USMC WWII Veteran cap, his arms and legs quivered as he pushed off of me to come to the best state of attention he could manage. His eyes slowly surveyed the memorial, and by that point I was certain that each one inspired a vivid memory from the war--and probably also of a time where his body wasn't constantly betraying him with frailty. Then he saluted, and stood a little bit taller. I held my hands just below his armpits in case he started to lose his balance, but he held that salute for what felt like a good minute before slowly going back at ease and wobbling back into my arms. Drained, he sunk back into his wheelchair, probably as out of breath from the emotions as from the exertion itself. My whole family was worked up at that point, and my mother and her sister were gushing over Grandpa and hugging him when a woman a little bit younger than my parents came up to him.

"I'm sorry, but could I just say thank you for what you've done?" she asked. "For serving this country?"

Now, I have a defiant streak in me a mile long, and this was after I'd read The Things They Carried, so I felt an urge to go Tim O'Brien on this woman. "For what he's done? What do you know about what he's done? You want to thank him for wearing a cap and looking like a sad old man, a great photo op, but do you care about what he's thinking right now? Probably hating that the prime of his life is tattered by these traumatic memories, that memories of youth for him are memoirs of death? I'm sure him being here, weak and emotionally raw, just makes your day, lady. A real nice visit to the World War Two Memorial..." But Grandpa was a better man than me that day.

"I was his color guard--a slack, unfit civilian in glasses to guard a hero from Okinawa from falling on the concrete."

"What's your name?" he asked, weakly shaking the woman's hand as she started to well up with tears. He then talked to her, and asked if she had any family who had served. I don't remember her replies, but I remember the way Grandpa, in a moment where I could only imagine feeling bitterness and resentment, took the time to talk to a random stranger and focus on making her feel good. Of course, we were surrounded by women at this point--the stranger, my cousin, my mom, and my aunt--so making her feel good meant that they all started sobbing while I stood amazed at the long-suffering smile on my grandfather's face.

That was nine years ago.

Since then I'd made countless pledges to chronicle Grandpa's life--to sit down and interview him while his senility still left him a spry conversationalist. College stymied that for a little while, and then his health slipped. He lost the ability to reliably focus on phone conversations, and the last time he visited, five years ago for my wedding, he struggled to keep conversations going at the best of times. I prayed that he'd get better, and swore that when he did, when I could interview him, I would write down his story, in his words, and know the man.

He never got better. And then, years later when I brought my family to his memorial service and held my son while talking about my hero and a man he'd never meet, it struck me how unfair it all was. That I'd never hear these stories in his own words, never learn how a German scrapper from Texas ever became such a mild and playful pastor. Never how he endured the shame of his own weakness and divorce, or what he was thinking when he first enlisted. Instead, he's dead. Dead and gone to a better place. And I'm left with only a vague composite testimonial instead of a relationship with my grandfather. I want to be bitter, to indulge in it. But then I think of that day in DC. I think of those feet shuffling in worn loafers across the concrete, and the way his stride would get faster and faster and then finally his knees would buckle under the strain of his pace. And on that February day, as I listened to family talking about Grandpa, I understood the man: he wasn't falling. His body may have been feeble, but he never lost his eagerness, that sparkle in his eyes that was just as likely to come from a visit from his nurse as talking to a janitor at his hospital. He had limitless energy, and that shuffle wasn't a fall--it was him rushing. Always eager, always wanting to set his own pace. And even in the end, when I'm sure it seemed like he was falling to the limits of his body, I know my Grandpa--he was just in a hurry.

I know this has been a long post, and I appreciate anyone who's read it through this far, since there's been scant humor or conspicuous nerdiness. But in being the Speaker for my Grandpa, I want to share with you a little bit of what drives me as an individual, a father, a son, and yes, even as a nerd. You see, Captain America is a great cartoon figure--a stylized and gratifyingly entertaining symbol of the greatest generation. But Grandpa, he simply is the greatest generation. He joined when everything stood against him and fought just as bravely as any man did. Then he went home and lived a life and fought a thousand other battles. He won and lost some, and even his family misunderstood him, failed to appreciate him, and abandoned him at one point or another. He still failed, still loved, still tried, and still reached out to family, friends, and strangers with a warmth I will never fully understand. He was a fighter. He was a flawed man. He was a soldier. Grandpa.

I hope you had a great Memorial Day. And I promise more snarky humor and frothing fandom tomorrow.


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