I was out front one morning, enjoying a gorgeous holiday weekend. While pointing in my general direction, Old Man Jack said to me from across the street, “Koji, she needs to come in at night.” My car was in between Jack and me. He loved my car…almost as much as his F4U Corsair.
Why would he tell me to put my Grabber Orange Mustang into the garage? He knows it’s parked outside 24/7 because the aggravating ex took away my garage without saying a word beforehand.
“Say what, Jack?” asked I…
I was humbled shortly thereafter by this exceptional and aging WWII combat vet who went to war as a young boy.
Indeed, I had to park my supercharged, car show winning Grabber Orange Mustang at curbside 24/7. Blistering sun, rain, ashes from wildfires, toxic sea gull poop and dog pee on my chrome wheels, I tell ya. The sea gull poop was the worst: unless you got if off before the desert-like sun microwaved it, it would leave the vinyl graphics underneath stained. Crap.
But I had to park it outside on the street, as I mentioned, as my darned ex decided to secretly take over my man-cave just months before I got it.
If you thought Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, the ex’s takeover of my man-cave was a blitzkrieg. Let’s just say it was a helluva shock to come home from work one day to find an illegal alien well on his way into putting up walls in the garage. She was building a “massage room”. Well, in the end, it was used for much more, unfortunately.
But back to Old Man Jack telling me that “she needs to come in at night”…
“Jack, I can’t put the car in the garage. You know that,” I said.
“No, not the car, you dumb shit. The flag!” he said with his boyish trademark grin and with great fondness.
“Huh? The flag?” I asked.
“Shit, didn’t they teach you anything in school? You gotta put a light on her if she’s staying out at night,” he said.
I then realized he had pointed to the flag behind me and not my car. Duh. I had put the red, white and blue out for the holidays as always and had simply left it out – and yes, for convenience. He must have seen it left out the night before. But then again, he must have been biting his tongue for years as I had left it out before.
As Popeye, the Sailor Man would say, “How embarrassinks.”
Well, Old Man Jack was right; there has to be a light shining on the flag at night. And yes, I had learned that flag etiquette as a youngster in school but just plain forgot with time. Heck, me and this other kid had the honor to take down the flag on a regular basis while in the 6th grade.
Anyways, I had remembered that story with today being Memorial Day. I had the flag out in reverence to our fallen. I even caught the tail end of a flight of four WWII T-6 Texans just north of us in a missing man formation.
It is now dark outside and yes, I brought her in. Can’t upset Old Man Jack, you know.
But it ate my heart out to see it draped over his casket just about three years later.
“….The son-of-a-bitch had no legs…” said Old Man Jack from his wife’s blue wheelchair. His arms were making like windmills. Well, windmills as fast as his 88 year old arms could go. He had a comical yet strained look on his face, his bushy white eyebrows still prominent.
But you could see the pain behind those eyes…and in his deadened voice.
Several months have passed since I visited with Old Man Jack at his grave. With Memorial Day around the corner, May 17th was a beautiful day to visit him. A recent rainstorm had just passed and the blue skies were painted with thin, wispy clouds.
I could see no one had stopped by since my last visit; at least no one that left flowers for his wife Carol and him. The hole for flowers was covered up and grass had crept up onto his gravestone.
I had brought along something for Jack this time; something I thought he would enjoy. So after cleaning up his resting place, it was placed atop his gravestone – his beloved F4U Corsair:
I’m hoping he was beaming. He couldn’t possibly be happier, being with the two most beautiful ladies in his life.
But back to his story.
A few months before he was taken away from his home, we had been sitting in his cluttered garage, talking about this and that; I just can’t recall what. But something in our talk triggered an ugly war flashback from his tormented and mightily buried subconscious. By that day in 2011, I could tell when he was enduring one, having sat in his garage with him for ten years.
He began as he did before. He would suddenly stop then gaze down at his hands for a couple of seconds. His left ring finger would begin to rhythmically pick under his right thumbnail. His white, bushy eyebrows now made thin with time would partly obscure his eyes from me when he lowered his head.
While I am unable to recall his exact words, he slowly allowed an ugly event to surface:
Old Man Jack began, “We were ordered to go on a patrol. We were issued rifles and hoped to God we wouldn’t come across any Japs,” he said in a remorseful way.¹ “Then, we came to these rice paddies… We could see hills around us… but that also meant the Japs could see us.”²
“We just followed the guy in front of us like cattle,” he said. “We were making it through the rice paddies when a couple of shells came in. Man, I hit the ground real quick.
Then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. Rounds were coming in like crazy all around me. They had this area zeroed in real good.”
He continued. “I ain’t ashamed to say it. I was scared real bad. Then we all started to scram. I got up and started to run. I dumped my rifle and ran like crazy.” While in that blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife Carol, Old Man Jack made like he was running, much like Popeye in this clip:
He then took his gaze away from his hands. “Then I saw this guy flying through the air with his arms making like he was still running… but the son-of-a-bitch had no legs!” He pointed his finger and made an arc like a rainbow, then swung his arms like a windmill. Apparently, an enemy round had hit his comrade, severing his upper torso from his legs then throwing him into the air. Although the comrade met a violent end, Old Man Jack was describing how he saw his arms flailing.
He stopped. His eyes returned to his hands. I still cannot imagine the torment he was enduring, even after 70 years.
I never will. I just hope he didn’t take it to his grave with him.
Let us remember this Memorial Day our fellow Americans who perished so young for the sake of their families and friends, no matter which conflict… and also firmly support those in uniform as I write. They, too, are being forgotten by many, even as they fight – and die – for us in godforsaken faraway places.
1. I would like to remind my readers that Old Man Jack had no hatred to me or my family when he uttered the word “Jap”. He is digressing to a most vile period in his life in which he could be killed the very next moment. If you are offended, it is suggested you participate in an all-out war; perhaps you will understand why.
2. At his funeral, the minister read off the islands he fought on. Based solely on his description of the large rice paddy and hills combined with what the minister said, I firmly believe this was Okinawa 1945. Oddly, while Old Man Jack mentioned Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Bougainville and Green Island, he never mentioned Okinawa.
I have been remiss in visiting Old Man Jack; when I arrived there today, I made sure he heard my Mustang he loved to ride in so much… I hope his now silent neighbors didn’t mind too much. As I neared his resting place walking on very sodden soil, it was clear I was his last visitor from some months ago. The grass had definitely encroached on his gravestone; even the hole where the water decanter should be seen was covered up.
As I trimmed away the overgrown grass, I fondly remembered a “Whhhoooo-eee!” Old Man Jack let out once. That one time, he had an extra emphasis on the “Whhhoooo”… with even more of a sopranic “eee” at the end. He then proceeded to tell me about how his old man kept him in line as a boy while handing me something from his past. More on that later.
And that word’s made up, you know…”sopranic”. But for that moment, he was definitely Julie Andrews. 🙂
In our chats in his cluttered garage, Old Man Jack used to tell me how he used to “tussle” a lot while growing up in Glendale, CA. You know. Fight. He wasn’t embarrassed to say he took a lickin’ – once in a while. He frequently said one reason why he took a lickin’ was that he was a runt so he took up body building for protection – as well as for the girls. He had flashed his trademark grin while gently shaking his head fondly left and right as while talking about his youthful adventures; you wonder what crazy memories flashed in his mind filled with life’s wisdom to power that grin.
He reminisced that his dad was also a bit of a trouble maker, especially when he had a bit too much libation but that he was the family enforcer. Old Man Jack said his dad was also a sailor – a baker in the US Navy to be exact but he also had worked as a barber. They were together out in the SW Pacific during the war but on different islands. He said his dad would once in a while send him a cake and cookies on a B-25 Mitchell that was making some kind of supply run. Old Man Jack instantly became the most loved sailor on that island when the cake and cookies were unloaded… provided the pilots didn’t eat them along the way.
On the way to visit him at his resting place, I decided to listen to the news. Well actually, the only time I can hear the news is while in my Mustang is stopped at a light – the exhaust isn’t exactly quiet (listen below)… and in that brief instant, the newscaster reported again about a pro sports figure and an alleged “beating” he gave his son. I turned it off as I am tired of the media making a circus out of every perceived “socially incorrect” behavior. Of course, I wouldn’t know of the intimate details of the allegations. Can’t trust the media, you know.
Don’t get me wrong. I sure as hell don’t condone BEATING a kid. No way. But… I believe there is nothing wrong with a spanking – or a “whippin'” as Old Man Jack’s generation used to say. Because of the social pressures exerted by a faction of our culture, taking a hand – any kind of hand – to your child means police show up at your door – at least here in California. “Positive reinforcement” goes only as far as your front door.
There is nothing wrong with a good spanking, in my opinion… Or, when I was going to junior high school, it was called a “swatting”. There was our PE teacher, a Mr. T. He had a swat board the size of Rhode Island made out of balsa wood thicker than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biceps. It was even taped at the handle to enhance the grip for his elephant sized hands AND he had several large holes drilled into the paddle section to increase the device’s aerodynamic characteristics, i.e., more paddle speed, more pain. I’m positive he had its aerodynamics tested in a wind tunnel. If any of my male high school buddies are reading this, they know exactly what I’m talking about. I think the paddle section was even painted black. All the PE teachers carried one of their own design.
Believe me, the threat of a swat kept MANY a kid in line… meaning they really gave it a thought before crossing that line and risk getting caught – and greeting the aerodynamically enhanced swat from Mr. T. One benefit was it taught respect – the hard way.
Frankly, the prohibition of spanking – in my opinion – has contributed to the growing disrespect and behavioral problems being shown by many of today’s younger folks. A kid never gets a well deserved licking, i.e., pain, if you did something bad. All a kid gets now is a painless lesson in positive reinforcement or detention. No pain, you gained. You learned it was OK to whine, too.
But back to his “Whhhoooo-eee”…
As Old Man Jack belted out the whhhooo-eee, he handed me this; it has been hanging safe and sound in my hall closet since he gave it to me:
It’s a barber’s leather razor blade sharpening strop (not strap). Specifically, a “Scotch Lassie”; it was his father’s:
While I wasn’t clear if this was the one that was used or not, Old Man Jack got a whippin’ with this on occasion from his dad…the same one who sent him cakes and cookies out in the Pacific during a vicious war. From a couple of the stories he told me, it sure sounds like he deserved the whippings and therefore, the reason for his whhhoooo-eee. And you know what? Old Man Jack turned out to be one helluva respectful and forgiving man.
Remembering he was giving me that trademark grin while handing it to me, he said something to the effect of, “Koji, I’ll tell ya… The thought of getting another whippin’ from my dad sure kept me from getting into more trouble…but not ALL the time.” Knowing Old Man Jack well by then, it made me grin, too.
With that, he said it was time for him to part with it, to move on and that he wanted me to keep it… if I wanted it.
Knowing how it was an intimate guiding influence of how this great man turned out to be as he was, of course I did. I think he was glad.
But I sure miss his trademark grin and I think he misses my cigar in return… but not the whippin’ I gave him when he challenged me at stop lights in HIS ’68 Mustang on our way to breakfasts.
After recovering and meandering next to his plane, he simply let out, “Some of (the pilots) just didn’t come back. I could never stop thinking, ‘Did a Jap get him… or was it me?’”
He said that because as Ground Crew Chief, he was responsible for the airworthiness of the plane a young Navy or Marine pilot would take out on a mission…to shoot at the enemy…or be shot at. These planes had to be in the best fighting condition as lives depended on it. But he frequently said “they had to make do” because they never had enough spare parts… so they HAD to improvise.
One time, he said a bushing had been shot out on a plane that had to go on a mission the next morning. Old Man Jack did what he could. What he must. He soaked two pieces of coconut logs in engine oil overnight. When it came time for the pilot to take off, he clamped the oil soaked wood around the cabling and used baling wire to clamp them together as tightly as he could. The plane left on its mission – with the young pilot behind the stick…in a plane with oil soaked coconut log as a bushing.
Now perhaps you understand the depth of his utterance of, “…or was it me?”
I will never have an answer because the question could never have been asked of him.
But I feel Old Man Jack carried tremendous guilt in his heart about something that happened on those stinkin’ islands.
Not just bad; real bad.
Deep down, my heart tugs at me that someone within Old Man Jack’s reach died that shouldn’t have… and that Old Man Jack feels personally responsible for his death… and he carried that anguish for all these years.
As Old Man Jack said, some of the young pilots didn’t come back.
They were killed or are forever missing in action.
That is for whom Memorial Day is all about.
To remember and honor those that did not come back…and not a Memorial Day sale.
Two old keys to Memorial Day…
Short Stories about World War II. One war. Two Countries. One Family