Homage to the old soldier

If scenes of Normandy at war and peace can be called beautiful in any way, it’s in the contrast of the locales from today to 70 years ago.

My father-in-law, Gerald Blevins, flew in and dropped paratroopers over Normandy Beach 70 years ago. Despite the blood and gore and havoc, he is in his ninety-second year today, hale, hearty, the old soldier. He remembers the mess. He has some trouble with his hearing from the bombardments. But after all these years, the V.A. has provided him with a new set of hearing aids. Eureka!

Today, Gerald enjoys raising his rose bushes and tomato plants, and nurturing the birds that come to his feeder for seed and drink. He’ll raise his old .22 only at hawks or crows making an incursion on the delicate species. He has a rare respect for life of all kinds.

He hardly speaks of war unless at the prodding of my two sisters-in-law (Nancy and Loretta). He is a man who escaped poverty and a broken family himself when he joined the army, right after the Great Depression, a man who reads every book he can get his hands on. He even asks me to send my articles, so as to get to the latest on how this country and the mad world are doing.

He is a man, who as a navigator saw death pass him by in the air, and only when prompted gave us a hint of what horror was, and with little glory. I wish men like this were brought to Washington, D.C., to give a speech on what hell war really is, and how misleading photos of the restored Normandy are, like a movie set or a travel brochure. Now he lives with my mother-in-law, Shirley, in a retirement residence.

She is 88 and was a “Rosie the Riveter” during the war and now is saddled with cancer. Yet she, with Loretta, will hop on horses to ride and take a few hours of pleasure to escape her pain. My wife, Anne, was born in Hutchison, Kansas, the second of the three daughters. At a birthday luncheon about a year ago, Gerald told us about being tested for entry to the Army Air Force, and how he had scored highest on the Intelligence Test. With a serious look on his face, he said, “you know, I didn’t have any education before that. My brother and father were gone.”

He went on to say, “What a muck and mess Congress has made of it all these days, fighting all over the world.” He rightly saw them as greedy men with no real courage, liars, thieves, four-flushers. I think that fate wanted Gerald to survive because he takes an such interest and pleasure in life, tending his roses, raising corn, reading a new book, of which he has many, a stack waiting for him to finish the last stack. He voted for Obama but is disappointed in his lack of leadership qualities. He thinks he can’t stick to his guns on issues. So do I.

Gerald started using a walker a few years ago. His son, Michael, and I help him with it when visiting, holding his arm to keep him steady, to get in and out of the car. His family now lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Before that they lived in Southern Colorado in a new community, Pueblo South, that sadly suffered a ten-year drought, which I believe did damage to my mother-in-law’s health. She instructed Nancy and Loretta that she wanted very much to leave Pueblo South. It had become bone-dry. The wind blew dust off the desert at night, though the stars were beautiful.

Loretta, who lived in South Dakota, encouraged her mother to take a look at an apartment/residence for seniors. Shirley was so anxious to leave her present environment that she brought her checkbook with her and put a down payment on a charming two bedroom apartment on the ground floor, which gave easy access to the outdoors, plants and birds. She told Loretta, Nancy and Anne not to tell ‘Daddy” about it. He’d probably want to stay there because he’d helped build a lovely steel-framed house. But when Shirley finally left for the residence, he followed his sweetheart to South Dakota. After several years, Nancy and Loretta were able to find a buyer for the house, and a good portion of Gerald’s capital came back to him.

Soon enough, he adapted to the senior residence. He made friends easily, and even started turning out some fancy woodworking. He is a very outgoing man and years ago liked to wear western clothes. When we used to rent a house in the Berkshires in summer and he visited with Shirley, he’d wear a lariat tie and a Stetson, occasionally cowboy boots. My nieces, Sarah and Virginia from Loretta’s first husband who had passed, would come to visit. They loved the lake. We had many great times swimming all day, making barbecues, going to Friendly’s (now gone), and riding through the Berkshires to see the sights, from Tanglewood to the Red Lion Inn, the porch of which was everybody’s favorite. Gerald loved being so far from the din of battle and near the beautiful mountains. So did Shirley.

When my own daughter got married ten years ago, rather than stay in a hotel, my wife found her parents and grandkids a short-term rental in the beautiful apartment of a travelling opera conductor. It was only a few blocks from where we lived and cost about as much as a hotel for all of them would. And meals were made and served either in the fancy apartment or our place. The kids and the grandparents came to the wedding and Gerald had a great time with the festivities. Even though my son-in-law was of a different faith, his father, a retired heart surgeon, had run a MASH unit in Vietnam. So Gerald and he bonded well.

But Gerald is also generous. And once, when my son, Peter, who is a guitarist graduate of the Juilliard Jazz program, Gerald had noticed that Peter’s shoes were beat up, he sent my son a check to buy some new boots. This was when we were touring the NASA space museum on a trip to Washington, D.C. We pushed Gerald in a wheel-chair to see the C-70 he used to fly—and by chance we passed the chrome Enola Gay, still radiating. Gerald wore a peak cap that said he was a W.W. II vet. And I don’t know how many people stopped and thanked him as they passed.

Fortunately, when he got out of the service he took the G.I. bill and went to school for engineering. He became a travelling salesmen for a major refrigeration company, invested a part of his wages and commissions in some good stocks and bonds. And that’s how he put his kids through school. He built his first house in Castle Rock, Colorado, with his father-in-law Slim Myers’ help, a farmer and part-time baseball pitcher.

Also, I’m sorry I couldn’t get out there last winter. It was a record cold winter and I can’t take flying those non-direct, missed-connection flights in sub-zero weather; not to mention the Department of Homeland Security patting me down and irradiating me. But Grandpa Blevins is not a complainer. He’s the salt of the earth. We’ve got to dig up some more of that salt, pronto, before we don’t have a country. There’s a standing joke when Gerald has a beer he leaves the other half for visitors. I wrote this piece to thank him for being so brave and giving me his daughter’s hand. She has the same brave nature at any challenge presented to her, including standing in as mother for my first two children for the last 37 years.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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