Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Losing stripes

Stationed somewhere in Europe, months after the Normandy invasion and with Allied victory now secure, my grandfather waited. Like thousands of other American troops, his work here was done, and it was just a matter of getting home. He’d finally see my grandmother again, and she’d celebrate his return with a special chicken dinner following her shift at the veteran’s administration in D.C. For now, he waited.

Grandpa didn’t tell us too much about the war growing up. Maybe we didn’t ask often enough. There was the occasional anecdote about catching sight of members of the royal family near Buckingham Palace, the show-and-tell with a handgun he’d saved after a run-in with a German soldier. There are also snippets that Grandma has shared in the years since his death, like how he broke his wrist trying to ride an English bicycle a few days before D-Day. When it was time for his company to join the effort, Grandpa hid his cast under his sleeve and told the commander he was good to go.

But it was during these mundane weeks of waiting that the event I find most striking occurred, an event that he himself never spoke of. A U.S. Army sergeant, Grandpa was responsible for a handful of fellow soldiers. As he and they anticipated heading back across the Atlantic, sometimes there was little to do. One day, a superior officer ordered Grandpa to have his men clean their guns. Grandpa protested that the guns were already clean – in fact, they had just cleaned them hours before. The officer didn’t care and repeated his command. But Grandpa was equally firm in his refusal to follow it. He calmly told his superior that while he would gladly (re)clean his men’s guns himself, he would not rob them of dignity by ordering them to complete unnecessary busy work. This exchange resulted in swift disciplinary action: Grandpa went home a private, stripped of his sergeant stripes.

My reaction upon hearing of this, about two years after Grandpa’s death, was an eager sort of awe and idealization. The long-ago confrontation seemed to perfectly capture the person I’d loved – brave, unafraid of sacrifice or hard work, and also exceptionally stubborn. Enrolled in a college poetry course at the time, I crafted an ode of pure admiration around the story. But another loved one’s comment on the poem eventually left my easy enthusiasm somewhat dampened. To him, this instance of insubordination, while gutsy and selfless, also suggested a certain recklessness, even foolishness. Why disobey such an insignificant order, however off-putting or ridiculous it may have been? I could see my family member’s point. What if Grandpa had wound up dishonorably discharged and without the benefits of the G.I. Bill that allowed him to go back to school after the war? Was it worth the risk?

That question, and the whole notion of taking a stand, sticking it to the man, has kept me company off and on in recent years. A decade or so after learning how my grandfather lost his stripes, civilian work life has surprised me with the number of moments where it seems right to speak up, write a letter, push back out of a sense of integrity – but also quite risky. Our livelihoods, healthcare policies and futures are at stake, and with the economy the way it is, ultimately the only acceptable posture is gratitude for a job upon which our survival quite literally depends.

The Elijah P. Lovejoy Memorial in Alton, Illinois
Earlier this year, when a friend of mine, Chris, quit a good job in protest of undergraduate admission policies at Washington University in St. Louis, I thought of Grandpa's own gutsy stand so many years prior. I felt a renewed sense of awe for everyday people, including regular people within my own circles, who decide enough is enough and do something personally hazardous about it. I told Chris that I thought he was brave, that his open letter of resignation made important points about class disparities in education, that he should keep writing, keep going, keep on keeping on.

It seems he couldn't, after a while. Like many others who were impacted by Chris, I'm still reeling from his sudden passing several weeks ago. He had offered up so much to ponder in recent months. I don't know what to make of this untimely loss, and I doubt I or anyone else ever really will.

But Chris, whatever else he was battling, wasn't speaking out in vain. Part of me has to believe that, but I really do believe it. In a world where so much is not as it should be, it's worth it to aspire to be like Grandpa, like Chris, like so many other unsung heroes, flawed and complex as they and we are. To keep going, keep fighting, keep attempting to make a gentler, more just world. We'll do it poorly, we'll do it awkwardly and sometimes it won't end well, but we have to try, in small and big ways.


"But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah... It's all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise, silence and sentiment, emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty." -Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty