A roundabout way of saying thank you

Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Armistice Day, 1923. November 11 was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

Laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day, 1923. November 11 was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

In the USA, Veterans Day is a chance to thank past and present members of the armed forces for their service to their country. It’s also an opportunity to recognize the veterans in one’s own family.

I have uncles who served in the military, but I don’t know much about when or where. I’m pretty sure my mother’s father was in the army, but I know nothing about his time there, and I can’t even really prove it.

The relative about whose army service I have the most knowledge is my father’s father. Yet, it would be somewhat awkward to thank him for fighting for American rights and freedoms; he was in the German Army.

My eldest son is fascinated by the fact that his great-grandfather was in the German Army. I’m not sure how his great-grandfather felt about it. When Kaiser Wilhelm’s men informed him that he was to be a soldier, I imagine him pointing out that there were millions of men to fight in France, but not nearly as many to milk his father’s cows. Nonetheless, he became a soldier.

After WWI, my grandfather emigrated to America. If I can’t thank him for his military service, I can thank him for this. It led to a much greater chance of me being born. And it led to me being an American.

My wife thinks I am a quintessential German, in my constant quest for order and efficiency, and my reticence toward hugging. Maybe that makes me the typical German-American, but I doubt I’d make a good German-German. For one thing, I don’t know if they get ESPN or the Big Ten Network in Germany. Soccer is fine, every four years, but I think Germans are expected to watch it more frequently.

I first began to suspect that I would never be a real German in my youthful travels, when I stayed at some youth hostels. It seems like there are always Germans at youth hostels. You can pick them out because they are the ones who enjoy staying at youth hostels.

To me, no arrangement could be more unpleasant than sleeping in a single room with 14 strangers and the residual grime of thousands more. The mere exhaust was enough to make me gag. Though I welcomed the chance to catch a glimpse of topless European girls sauntering through the halls, the communal aspect of everything made even that prospect not worth it.

I’m proud of my German heritage, but I am a rugged individualist American, only more squishy than rugged since my childhood on the farm. The lack of cows kicking you in the head will soften your rugged edges over time. I may still hug like a German, but I am truly American.

As an American, I join many millions of other grateful Americans in saying: to all the people, past and present, who have used your lives to serve and safeguard your country, Thank You. Happy Veterans Day.



Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

Our four-year-old had a friend over. I was watching a basketball game while they played nearby. They began discussing their respective lineages. How four-year-olds get into such a discussion, I don’t know. There must be something about toy trains that leads naturally into ancestry.

I let the ballgame fade away as I focused myself upon a little parental eavesdropping. I wanted to know what my son had retained from the things I’d told him about his family.

“My grandfather was a soldier,” he told his friend.

That was very nearly correct. It was his great-grandfather, but that’s all the same to a preschooler.

“He died when he got old,” my son continued.

Correct. He was about 70, which seems ancient when you’re four.

“My grandsister died too. She was sick.”

Grandsister? I don’t know what closet he pulled her out of; I’m sure I’ve never mentioned a sickly grandsister.

“And,” he said, with no more emotion than he’d displayed when recounting the demise of his faceless grandsister, “my father died because somebody shot him.”

What? I’m sitting right here!

Number 1: You’re clearly lying.

Number 2: It’s rude to speak of someone’s grisly death right in front of him.

Number 3: If you’re going to tell people I’m dead, at least act a little cut up over it!

His friend pointed out that I was quite nearby, and although I displayed all the vigor of a declining couch potato, it was clear that I still clung to my low-grade existence. My son dropped the subject and picked up a locomotive engine.

A lot of thoughts go through your head at that moment when your son first begins to tell people that you are dead. Once you eliminate malice as a motive, you are assailed by a Twilight Zone of possible interpretations:

Is he a psychic, unwittingly foretelling my violent demise? Well, he didn’t see a Time Out coming when he threw a tennis ball at the TV screen, so his psychic powers can’t be too polished.

Am I seeing him in the future, when I really am shot and killed? It still wouldn’t hurt him to show a little grief over the event.

Does he see dead people (i.e. me)? Well, if I’m already dead, his friend, his brother, his mother, all my co-workers, and the guy who flipped me off in traffic this morning can see me too, which gives death no advantages over life.

After the shock of my untimely end wore off, I realized the truth. It had nothing more to do with the Twilight Zone than that my boy might have written for the show if he’d been around at the time. The kid is a storyteller. He likes storytelling so much that he blurts out the plot before taking time to review its plausibility. He said I died because he wanted to keep the story going and the word father came to him before he could conjure up a grandbrother.

The boy likes to spin a yarn, and since I have never been one to embellish any story or make any tale taller by a few inches, I can only blame his mother.

drawing of army man

A storyteller and an artist too: This is the boy’s illustration of his great-grandfather. I can only assume that the stain on his uniform is mud and/or coffee. War is dirty business, and, if this soldier was anything like his great-grandchildren, most of his drinks ended up on his clothes.