My Veteran's Days

Panorama

Blacksburg, Va.—Save for a few lonely flags in the cemetery by First Parish Church in the Square, Veterans’ Day passed largely unobserved at Harvard, from what I could tell. Sure, some students probably reflected on their own as they went about their day. But most simply enjoyed a Tuesday off: they slept in, caught up on coursework, watched the preview screening of the new Tim Burton film and nursed hangovers from the Harvard State University party the night before. There was, after all, little in the way of commemoration to remind us why classes were cancelled.

My grandfather, Roy Insley Jennelle, passed away gently on Tuesday. He faced his last Veterans’ Day like each Nov. 11 before it—with solemn pride. He served the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, where his ship struck a mine and sank. He survived to a Purple Heart and a multitude of questions—first among them, why he deserved a different fate than those shipmates who died in the 12 hours before rescue arrived. As a religious man, such questions were supposed to have answers.

But in spite of his lifelong scars, I rarely thought of my grandfather as a veteran, even on Tuesday’s holiday. Neither did most who knew him, in part because he suppressed those scars with silence for 43 years.

To me, he was always my Pappaw. Rarely effusive, he played with my cousins and my sister, Lindsay, and I in his own way. When we went sledding, his tractor rides saved us from the slog up the long hill behind my grandparents’ house. I never balked at the opportunity to drive his ole John Deere, my dream machine for the first part of my life. Since Pappaw was always mowing or towing or fixing something, I had plenty of opportunities to take the wheel.

Pappaw was dazzling with machines. He was Mr. Fix-it meets Dr. Doolittle, and with his ear to his car, his water heater, his garbage disposal—anything with moving parts—he could diagnose their afflictions. I tried to learn his secrets, to hear for myself the aches and pains that machines would confide in him. Whenever one of our family cars began to stutter or strain back in Pennsylvania, my Dad would call Pappaw and carry the phone out to the garage so that the doctor could listen. Pappaw often pinpointed problems just like that. One time a water pump, another time a loose fan belt—but be sure to check the coolant.

It was magical fodder for my imagination. Did the cars whisper thanks to him the next time he listened? I marveled at what he could do, especially since no one in my immediate family was blessed with anything near his handiness.

Pappaw loved gadgets, those he built most of all, and he was eager to teach me how they worked even before I really cared to learn. His were simple in design and brilliant in economy, I have never seen anything like them. He made a humidifier for his bedroom out of a large coffee can, a handkerchief and a wooden rod. The handkerchief, dipped in the water in the bottom of the can, drew moisture up and out; placed near a vent, vapor diffused through the room. His rugged creativity sparked my initial love of science, one that remains with me today—turncoat though I am from math to social studies.

Pappaw taught me the difference between education and wisdom. Schooled only through ninth-grade, he never read Thoreau, but I think he was a transcendentalist at heart. He was always happiest outside. He pointed out the forest fingerprints of deer or rabbits even though, in his equanimity, his eyes seemed still. He found meaning in the pace of nature, particularly in the rural tension between civilization and the unsullied beyond.

He had an encyclopedic memory of the people in his life and their happenings. Gifted with gab but loath to gossip, he chronicled his world and its inhabitants as a way of keeping up. I loved our perennial truck rides through Blacksburg, where he would weave together his 77 remarkable years with anecdote and lore. He read his life story on the houses and storefronts here, in this now-bustling, once backwoods home of Virginia Tech. Some of those stories are locked in the collective memories of those who spent time with him. Others, more rarely told, are forever lost. Such is the tragedy of oral history.

Then there are the little things, the idiosyncrasies that among memories are the most precious and most fragile. Some only I remember.

It tormented Pappaw that I never ate green beans. Every meal—which is about how often my beloved grandmother, his beloved wife, Marie, made them—he would plead with me to try them again. They would put hair on my chest, he told me, a harrowing thought for a kid still waiting on hair in other places. He may have been right, after all—my breasts remain bald, 21 years on.

He loved to ask me whether I had a Sadie—a girlfriend—no more than 20 minutes after I entered the house. If I said no, then I must be beating them off with a stick, he said, as if I had that luxury.

He was Teflon when stuck with the blame—for finishing the ice cream, for missing a doctor’s visit, for whatever banality it was. In his last week, I am told, my grandmother used a belt as a harness to lift him from wheelchair to bed. Although his mind was failing by then—most of our family had become strangers to him, myself included; few things are more painful—he somehow retained his buck-passing jujitsu. The belt hurt his back, and he was not about to buy my grandmother’s explanation that “I can’t get you up without that belt.” It was not his frailty, but her weakness—“You can’t get me up with that belt,” he retorted.

That’s the Pappaw I will always remember on Veterans’ Day, a man of deep but reserved love. His affection was most generous with his grandchildren, but it was constant and unfailing with everyone close to him.

I never knew much about his life as a veteran because he rarely spoke of it, even after he finally opened up—he could at least suppress what he would rather forget. I suppose that’s how many combat survivors cope, especially those who returned home before psychiatry and medicine were better tailored to their fitful unease.

Veterans’ Day is not about politics, nationalism, patriotism or violence, at least as I celebrate it. It’s an opportunity to draw inspiration from the lives of people like Pappaw who surrendered their youth for their country, whether in its triumphs or its mistakes. It’s a chance to offer unambiguous respect and sympathy to those with malignant memories that they often endure alone—and that no one ever deserves.

If you don’t have any veterans in your family, please keep my Pappaw in your thoughts on future Veterans’ Days. Nov. 11 was his proudest and loneliest day of the year, and with his passing, so will it become for those of us he left behind.

Blake Jennelle ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.