Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Greatest Generation

This is one of my favorite photos of my dad. Taken on V-E Day, in his barracks, he looks impossibly young. He was twenty, and I'm sure he fancied himself a man of the world. When he left his county-seat hometown of Grantsville, West Virginia, he hadn't seen much of the world, though he'd listened to it on the radio in the old henhouse that he'd wired up to live in during high school.

After two years of combat in northern Italy, he'd become fluent in Italian, having befriended a local family with whom he still exchanges Christmas cards. After V-E Day, he and some of his army buddies who also had leave traveled to Rome to see the sites, inadvertently alarming his mother back home when she didn't hear from him for several weeks after the surrender.

Like many vets, he came home and immediately went to college on the G. I. Bill, and the stories he tells about his undergraduate days at West Virginia University are among my very favorites. He lived in the old Episcopal parish house, Trinity Hall. The building had actually been condemned, but was allowed to remain open for a few more years due to the housing shortage when the student population swelled with returning troops eager to get on with their lives.

The Trinity Hall group was a motley bunch--most were first-generation college students, sons of miners and laborers from a huge variety of ethnic backgrounds. Smart, ambitious, and happy the war was over, they studied hard and played harder, each trying to outdo the other with practical jokes.

(My personal favorite has to do with one resident who was notorious for coming home drunk and waking everyone else up. Fed up, the other guys moved all of his furniture out to the front lawn after he left the house one night, recreating the guy's room down to running an extension cord out to plug in the guy's table lamp. The drunk had the last laugh, though: when he came home, he simply climbed into the bed right there on the lawn and turned out the light.)

My father has often said that the men of that generation were anxious to put the war behind them, to get back to the plans they'd had beforehand. And it's true, he never talked much about his war experiences when I was growing up. Apparently, I asked him once (I don't remember this) whether he'd ever seen a dead person.

He didn't answer me then. But in the last fifteen years or so, he's been talking a lot more about those years of his life, both during the war and after. And he's been to several reunions of both his Army Division and of the Trinity Hall guys, who managed to track each other down recently.

In fact, the photo below was taken at his Division's last reunion in 2007, when they met in Washington, D. C. and were joined by members of the current Division. One of the current officers had seen the V-E Day photo above previously, and had brought along a copy of Stars and Stripes he'd found so that Dad could recreate the pose.

And he and my mother were down here in Morgantown the first week of October for another get-together with some of the Trinity Hall folks. Dad grumbled that they'd run out of things to say to each other, and that he didn't think they needed to keep meeting. But he still clearly enjoyed himself, and enjoyed recounting more stories of his days at WVU.

On the Friday night of their visit, Tom and Dad and I sat around visiting for awhile after mom went to bed. Suddenly, the fingers on Dad's left hand started trembling; a few seconds later, his whole hand was wagging back and forth, and then his left arm.

We all studiously tried to ignore it (that's the Hathaway way, I'm afraid), but in less than a minute Dad jumped up and said he was going to bed, too. I felt awful: was this something that I didn't know about, but that he'd been dealing with for awhile?

When it happened again the next night, I discovered that, in fact, the previous night's episode had been the first. And, in fact, he jumped up because he was so freaked out by it: "It's WEIRD!" he exclaimed.

Long story short: after a bunch of tests, he's been diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer, and had surgery last Thursday to remove the tumor.

Once a warrior, always a warrior: as soon as he woke up, Dad was cracking jokes and expressing his impatience with his slow recovery. He wanted to report to me immediately that his anesthesiologist was a graduate of WVU's med school. I learned from my mother yesterday that Dad discovered that one of the doctors who comes in to check on him is also fluent in Italian, so they've been chatting away in Italiano.

In many ways, his memories of his war and college years seem to be the ones that are sustaining him through all of this. We've heard a lot about those days on our visits to the hospital.

Funny how the things you try to get away from, put behind you, are the very ones that stick with you. And now, as in 1945, he just wants to get on with his life.

6 comments:

Rosemary said...

BTW, Dad would *hate* the title of this post, since he's always bristled at the "Greatest Generation" moniker. :^)

Eva Hathaway said...

Thanks Rosemary. This made me cry, and taught me something about Grandpa Dave too. I realize there is just so much I don't know...

Rosemary said...

Sorry, Eva--that wasn't my intent! :^(

Jim said...

That's some good writin', Rosemary.

--S. said...

I'm so glad you took the time to share this story.

Christy said...

A beautiful post, Rosemary. John has a similar story about asking his father if he'd ever seen a dead person. His father (a Vietnam vet) reacted much the same as yours, and he's recently started talking about his experiences as well. Like your father, he's had some pretty rough health scares, and like your father, he perseveres.

We'll be thinking very good thoughts on this end. Hope you have some lovely quality time together over the holidays.