Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Billy

My grandmother’s last remaining sibling, my great-uncle Billy, died last week. He was 84 years old.

            I have three significant memories of Uncle Billy: 1) He and his wife, Pat, used to visit my grandfather regularly after my grandmother died. 2) He saw me making a delivery to Grant’s Farm while he was there with his granddaughter and would forever think I worked there. Every time I would see Billy, he would ask, “Are you still working out there at Busch’s place?” And 3) He and Pat celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary a few years back.

             It was heartbreaking as I sat with Aunt Pat at the wake. Billy’s dear, frail, grieving widow recounted his last days. She told of his recent downward spiral and his persistent stubbornness. Pat believes he died of  a heart attack attempting to leave the hospital. So sad. The singular down side to finding one’s soul mate is that, more than likely, one will have to bury the other.

            One thing I did not know was that Billy was a World War II veteran. Aunt Pat proudly showed us his medals, framed in display boxes on a table with photographs. One old black and white picture showed a baby-faced Billy in his Marine uniform beside his older brother Bert, who was in the Navy during the war.

            “Was there ever a time that Bert did not have a mustache?” My cousin Kelly asked. (He is actually my mother’s cousin. Does this make him my great cousin?)

            Bert had died during the 80’s, and no, I never saw him – in person or otherwise – without his trademark pencil-thin mustache. Bert played guitar, and he was sort of the bandleader of the rag-tag ensemble that sang and drank together at family gatherings.

            My earliest memory of Bert dates back to when I was about three years old. The crucifix on my wall had fallen off its mount, breaking the glass pane of the shadow box frame that contained it. My mother dropped it off with Uncle Bert, who returned it a few days later good as new. I thought of him thereafter as The Man Who Fixed Jesus – a distinction that remains despite my grown-up realization that he probably just took it to a glass shop and bought a new pane.

            Recently, I discovered an ancient document among my mother’s things. It bore both Bert’s and my grandmother’s signatures. After extensive reading, I realized what it was.

            My grandmother’s first husband was a construction worker. One day he dropped his hammer from a scaffold and jumped into a trench to retrieve it. He was immediately chopped in half by the jaws of the giant crane that was digging the trench.

            This document was the insurance settlement. Evidently, Bert had accompanied my grandmother in carrying out this regrettable business.

            My grandmother would marry her second husband, my grandfather, a few years later. It occurred to me that were it not for this freak accident, neither my mother nor my siblings and I would exist.

            But I digress. Back to Billy’s wake . . . .

            Another picture showed my grandmother and all of her brothers and sisters, circa the late 60’s, taken at my grandmother’s house. They would be in their 40’s to 50’s at this time. The men – George, Billy and Bert – were either crouching or kneeling in front of the standing women – Ruth (Kelly’s mother), Marie (aka Mickie), Bernice (my grandmother) and Melba.

            There is an interesting story about Aunt Mickie. . . .

            During the 40’s, Mickie’s husband was in the Navy. They thought they had landed the ultimate gig when they were stationed in Hawaii in a house overlooking the harbor.

            One Sunday morning, as they prepared for church, they were startled by aircraft engines, gunfire and explosions. They could see the faces of Japanese pilots from their kitchen window as they flew at low altitudes bombing the nearby US Fleet. Eventually the window would be shot out, leaving bullets embedded in their kitchen cabinets. They could hear the screams of dying soldiers trapped in the hull of a sinking ship mere yards away. Anonymous blood flowed in the streets outside.

            Mickie’s hair fell out as the result of the trauma and never grew back. She would wear a wig for the rest of her life. Neither she nor her husband would ever participate in any of the Pearl Harbor commemorative ceremonies, even though they were repeatedly invited. They had no desire whatsoever to return to the scene of the horrific Japanese attack.

            So, both Bert and 17-year-old Billy would enlist. Bert was stationed stateside in California. Billy saw action in the Pacific.

            “Billy always loved Harry S. Truman,” Kelly said. He explained that Uncle Billy was to be among the first US troops to invade the Japanese mainland had the atomic bomb not been used to force Japan’s surrender. “He had the guts to drop the bomb and save soldiers’ lives. Whenever anybody would criticize President Truman’s decision, Billy would rise to his defense.”

            After the war, Billy would return home and marry Pat, his high school sweetheart. Like many of the brave men of his rapidly fading generation, he did not speak much of his experiences during WWII. He just wanted to get back to normal life, going about his business of working and raising his children, who would then give him grandchildren. Perhaps we have Harry S. Truman to thank for the last 65 years of Billy’s life.

            And now we lay Uncle Billy to rest, the last of my grandmother’s generation – they whom Tom Brokaw aptly dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” They defended freedom without the use of smart bombs, night vision goggles, the Internet or  computers. They did so lugging around radios larger than a bread box or squeezed inside ball turrets in propeller-driven aircraft  guided by radar, slide rules and compasses. From the pages of seemingly ancient history, they made modern life possible.

            Rest in peace, Uncle Billy.



One Response to “Rest in Peace, Uncle Billy”

  1. Beautifully written. Uncle Billy was of my dear grandparents’ generation. I celebrate them daily and miss them hourly.

    He sounds like a wonderful man.

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