Those soldiers gave my grandfather’s graveside service a gravity and dignity it would have lacked otherwise. They shared a bond with him that I can never understand, for I am a soldier’s grandson but not a soldier.
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join John Barnes as he reflects upon his grandfather’s funeral and the brotherhood that is the United States military. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
A former coworker once referred to me as a “late adopter.” I suppose that’s true. Long after the popularity of the TV miniseries “Band of Brothers” crested, my wife and I started watching it. Not long after we finished, I happened to see it at the store for a reasonable price so I bought it. I told a current coworker and he laughed. “I didn’t know people still bought DVDs,” he said. I can’t seem to win on that front.
The timing of life’s events is often anything but accidental, for it was in the wake of my grandfather’s sudden passing that we first watched Band of Brothers. While both my wife and I found the show compelling, it struck me even deeper. The men portrayed on screen were shaped by their experiences, friendships, losses, and most of all by the horrors of war. Like many of his generation, my grandfather served in World War II. While watching Band of Brothers, I came to think of him as a different man. I knew there was a story behind his service, but I also knew that, apart from the scant bits and pieces I picked up over the years, his story was lost forever. His fate was decided.
U.S. Army Private First Class Mario Angelo DiGrazia did not serve in the 101st Airborne or storm the beaches at Normandy. To my knowledge, his time did not include any remarkable acts of combat heroism recounted in history books or Hollywood movies. His dress uniform jacket, now adorning a wall in my home, bears the emblems of his units, a combat infantry badge, campaign medals, a decoration for good conduct, and what the militaria community refers to as the “ruptured duck.” From these I know he served his country faithfully when called and received an honorable discharge. His service, like that of most who took up arms against the Axis, was profoundly ordinary.
When I wrote the National Archives in search of his official service records, I received a form letter notifying me his were among the many records lost in a 1973 fire. The letter indicated the existence of a partial remaining record though without explanation. If I sent a check for $25.00 they would give me a copy of what remained. It felt like mailing in for a sweepstakes. A couple weeks later I received a disappointingly thin envelope containing one page: His final payroll accounting before discharge. It was something of a heartbreak for me. I had hoped for information that might shed light on his experiences in Europe, but instead I learned that, in return for hardship and sacrifices, he mustered out with a pittance of a paycheck in hand. It symbolized the rising of the bureaucratic age that the final act in the drama was squaring the ledger.
The G.I. Bill would later provide him an education at the University of Washington, where he studied metallurgy and engineering. At the Bethlehem Steel mill in Seattle, he worked his way up from the blast furnaces and into the laboratory. After retiring, he watched helplessly as the U.S. steel industry and most of our once unrivaled manufacturing might was dismantled and shipped overseas. He understood that service employment could not sustain our nation’s quality of life for long and he became skeptical of the so-called “information economy.” He would have been the first to tell you that his was not the greatest generation. He once asked me “where is the internet?” I could answer the what, but did not have the foggiest idea how to tackle the where part. The world he knew had largely slipped away and he was at a loss to understand what was replacing it. Perhaps, knowing his days were numbered, he saw no need to try.
He died at home, working alone in his garden. Those who knew him understood this fitting end for a man who toiled endlessly on a plot of land once fertile and teeming with nearly every type of fruit and vegetable the climate would sustain. By his end, little remained but grass and ornamental shrubs. Like him, the soil was exhausted. His death in such a place was poetic.
It’s been nearly a year since my grandfather’s last breath left his body, and I am filled with an unspeakable sorrow that has yet to show itself in any real emotional outburst. It lays hidden, too deep within me for anyone to see, like an ocean current that moves inexorably but goes unnoticed on the surface. The sorrow is chained to a regret that I did not spend more time with my grandfather, and the time I did spend was not as fruitful as it ought to have been. I want to hear his stories. I want to know of his travels in Europe during and after the war. I want to know about the friendships he formed, and yes, even the friends he lost in combat. I want to know what he saw and felt when his unit liberated a Nazi death camp.
Fueling my regret is the knowledge that I was the one person in the family with whom he seemed at all inclined to discuss the war. In fact, by the end of his life, I suspect I was the only one left in the family whom he really trusted at all. He handed me the responsibility of settling his estate, which might help explain why, to this day, I have been unable to truly mourn his passing.
When you settle an estate it is all too easy to reduce the person to the affairs you must attend. Instead of a man and his life, instead of his story, he becomes a set of accounts, numbers, insurance policies, property, meetings, errands, tax forms, court filings, bills to be paid, and other legal minutia involved with formally ending his temporal existence. This happens subconsciously.
Going through my grandfather’s house and sorting through his belongings, I felt like an outsider prying into secrets, intruding on his innermost self. Papers. Letters. Photographs. Memorabilia. Heirlooms. His garage seemed to hold every tool and piece of hardware he had ever owned. I sifted through innumerable items that meant something to him and many that meant something to me, since I had spent time in the house from my earliest days until his death. Pictures that once hung upon his walls now rest on mine. A shoebox full of old photographs from the 1940s, perhaps once rich with meaning and memory, is now a box full of mystery in my home. Aside from the occasional scribbles on the back, I can only guess at the places, and the names or stories behind them will forever elude me. My grandfather is dead, and his stories died with the man.
Mario Angelo DiGrazia’s final marker, courtesy of the U.S. government, is made of bronze. It rests upon a bed of granite. The monument will last longer than his progeny and will, I suspect, outlive the civilization he fought to defend.
I have attended enough funerals to know the allure of lionizing the dead. A man dies as a mere mortal but then is spoken of as only a saint. Deo gratias, this has not been the case for my grandfather. All of us who attended his burial service were keenly aware of his shortcomings. They drove me away from him at times. They drove others away from him permanently. And thus, instead of a funeral Mass complete with a homily of canonization, his was a simple graveside service per his own last wishes that there be naught but a short ceremony beside his final resting place on this earth, a plot of soil he purchased decades ago.
On a sunny July day, the U.S. Army sent a detachment of active-duty soldiers to the shaded corner of a quiet cemetery where others in my family rest. At full attention, the soldiers stood watch beside my grandfather’s open tomb awaiting the motorcade and flag-draped casket.
The bugler sounded the eternally mournful Taps for my grandfather. “Day is done, gone the sun.” I thought of the words inscribed upon the facade of a small church in Rome: Hodie mihi, cras tibi. Today my fate is decided, tomorrow yours.
It spoke volumes to me that, while the bugler’s notes still echoed across the grounds and the soldiers gave my grandfather his final salute, a tear ran down the face of that young noncommissioned officer in charge of the detachment. Surely, I thought, he had discharged this duty many times over beside fallen veterans. This must certainly have turned routine. And yet, perhaps it could not and would never become mere routine to honor a fellow soldier, a brother in arms, though born in the battles of a different generation, laid to rest at last. Maybe that young man was blessed with the inability to grow numb to such a sublimely profound event. I was struck by the reality he likely witnesses with increasing occurrences; our nation’s World War II veterans are dying in great numbers, and the day draws nigh when none remain.
Those soldiers gave my grandfather’s graveside service a gravity and dignity it would have lacked otherwise. They shared a bond with him that I can never understand, for I am a soldier’s grandson but not a soldier. As I fought back my own tears I saw a painful truth: I knew the man and they did not, but as fellow combat veterans they knew far more about what he went through than I ever could or ever will.
I envy them.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in July 2015.
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