Like many people my age, both of my grandpas served in World War II.
My generation is attached to the Greatest Generation by a few degrees of separation and the kind of time that makes it difficult to associate either grandpa with his vitamins and cranberry juice and attachment to with the square-jawed young men raising the flag at Iwo Jima or posing in uniform in the German countryside.
And like many grandchildren of vets, the stories I know I only know in fits and starts. Either because I was too young to understand or the stories, even decades later, were still too fresh to be told.
Still, what I do know is that home was a talisman, at least for one of my grandpas.
R. Gregory Warren was only a year into military school in Claremore, Oklahoma, when he enlisted and was sent to Germany in May 1943 as a paratrooper. He was an only child, famously ornery, and pretty much joined up to learn some discipline along with the fact that he was compelled that fighting against the Nazis was the right thing to do.
He doesn’t tell many stories about the war. Mostly mentioning how he was super careful about having clean socks and took up smoking because personnel got cigarettes for free. (He quit smoking when he returned but has been obsessive about cleanliness ever since.) No stories of bravery or killing Nazis or saving innocents, though, I’m sure there’s some mixture of those things locked up tight in his 89-year-old mind.
But the story he does tell, and that I’ve heard many times, is about when a piece of home found him in the middle of Germany.
As I’ve mentioned, he was an only child—The Great Depression kind of ruined his parents on having other kids—but he was very close to his twin female cousins, called Bob and Frank by the family and everyone else (though their names were Barbara and Frances). They were like his older sisters and they were extremely important to him and he missed them dearly, though both had wartime jobs as nurses.
One day, in the middle of Germany, Greg’s supervisor drove up in a Jeep and said, “Warren, come with me.” Of course, he did, because by then the orneriness was under wraps, and he was pretty good at doing as he was told. Plus, in an active war zone, you always do as you’re told.
He followed the commanding officer over to a Jeep. There, in the back, was a woman. And as he got closer, his heart started racing.
It was his cousin, Bob.
The nurse had been given time off and went in search Greg, and in doing so, both found a little home, there in the middle of Germany, in the middle of a war.
Greg’s commanding officer waited for the pair to stop hugging before clearing his throat and saying, “Warren, can you drive a Jeep?” Greg nodded. And was told he had three hours and the Jeep to do with as he pleased.
The pair jetted off as far as they could go, trading stories and catching up half a world away from the farm in Oklahoma where they’d pal around each summer together, along with Frank, who was on leave in England and missing out on the fun Greg and Bob were having in Germany.
And fun they did have, even taking a picture together in front of a bombed out church: My grandfather’s only picture from Germany during his entire tour.
Today, it’s hard to imagine how amazing that experience must have been for both of them. Now, we’re all so utterly connected, and finding a friend in a crowd or even a foreign country is as easy a single text, an address and time. Maybe an email, if necessary.
It will probably always be exhilarating to get a taste of home when far away, true. But I’m fairly certain that feeling doesn’t hold a candle to his surprise and her delight at connecting a world away.
I hope everyone had a fine Veteran’s Day this week and got a chance to remember those who have served or are serving at this very moment.