My grandparents showed up at our house in Harrisville, Michigan driving a big American sedan with a hood as broad as a ping-pong table. My sister and I called them Grammie and Grampie. Grampie was wearing full Florida retiree regalia: god-awful plaid pants with a white belt, white shoes, and a peach colored shirt. We had a joke that, whenever we reunited, he always had to say, “Where’s the raspberry pie?” I don’t remember how that started.
Now that I’ve been to war twice, I think about my grandfather more often. This is especially true since I just got word that I’ll be going back for the Iraqi hat trick.
My family’s from Maine. I used to hear things growing up like, “Quaker meeting has begun/No more laughing/No more fun/If you show your teeth or tongue/You’ll have to pay a forfeit.” There were many ancient New England ways to remind the kids that our job was to be seen and not heard. Grampie was nice to have around to counterbalance the regime where I grew up. Somehow, even as a Yankee, he was missing the grouchy chromosome.
My overriding memory was that Grampie was silly. It helped that he looked like—I’ll say it—a chimp. He was balding and had kind of a droopy lower lip, maybe from smoking a pipe for years. We’d talk to each other in our own goofy language with our tongues jammed in front of our bottom teeth. We’d walk around in public jabbering like a pair of village idiots with speech impediments.
On several 4th of July holidays we’d be at Grampie’s cabin in Maine and everyone would be gathered out on the patio near the lake. The lake would be rimmed with exploding fireworks from various camps along the shore. Grampie and I would let loose with ridiculous and loud, “Oooh!” and “Aaaah!” exclamations at even the unworthy explosions. Finally, we’d hit Grammie’s limit and she’d laugh, “Judas Priest, Raymond.”
At one point, we lived in Cadillac, Michigan and I was watching my dad skin a deer in the garage. It was hanging up from one of the rafters and my dad was going at it with a knife to remove the hide. He was nearly done when Grampie walked in saying, “What’s going on out here, you—.” He turned on his heels and went back inside. I thought it was odd. It was fall and perfectly natural to see a skinned deer carcass hanging out in the cold air. It was only later, thinking of the typical, silent World War II veteran that I thought maybe the bare flesh reminded him of something else.
Years passed and I was graduating from the US Air Force Academy. My grandfather was coming to pin on my lieutenant’s bars. By then, I vaguely understood that he was involved in the fighting near the Battle of the Bulge. When my parents arrived to help me celebrate, I drove down to their hotel. My mom opened the door in tears and told me that Grampie died, just three days before I became an officer. Grammie told me that pinning on my bars was the only thing keeping him going at the end.
I became a fighter pilot in the F-16. After several trips to enforce the Iraqi No-Fly Zone, I left the Air Force. I tried the airlines out for a while and then the towers fell. The airlines furloughed me and I got back into the service flying F-16s with the Minnesota Air National Guard. Three years after I moved to Duluth, my unit finally got tapped to go to Operation Iraqi Freedom. On April Fool’s Day in 2005, Grammie died, 16 years after Grampie did. This was within weeks of going to Iraq, but I managed to hurry to Maine for her funeral.
We went to Grammie’s empty room in a retirement home and my sister said there was something she needed to show me. My sister was in New England during all the years I was flying around the globe. She knew Grammie kept a bible by her bedside and used an old letter as a bookmark. She handed me the letter and I started to read. December 1944 or so was the date, around the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Grampie wrote how much he loved Grammie and missed holding her. I don’t remember any more specifics. It was like being hit by an emotional grenade. I was about to leave my own wife and two kids to go to my first real shooting war. I felt my grandfather’s longing for home as he wrote a few lines, put the letter away for a few days, came back to it, and wrote some more. Sixty years later, that letter meant so much to Grammie that she still had it by her bedside.
A few weeks later, I was diving into bunkers and behind sandbags to avoid incoming mortar rounds. I missed my wife and kids. I wrote a letter home every day. I was starting to understand. Grammie gave me several old dusty magazines a year before she died and I perused them. My first reaction was, “Neat. A picture of Grampie in uniform.” After my first Iraq trip, I became acutely aware that I had no idea what Grampie had done at all. I started to dig.
Captain Raymond Jackson was the 2nd Battalion Plans and Training Officer in the 311th Timberwolves Infantry Regiment, 78th Lightning Division. He earned the Bronze Star for planning the assault on Kesternich, a city the Americans took after breaking out of the Bulge. The battle for Kesternich was some of the bloodiest urban fighting that occurred on the whole western front. My dad told me that Grampie briefly admitted that his Jeep got hit by a German 88 round. Luckily, it was a dud. I’ll never know anymore than that. I know he left awful fast when we were skinning that deer.
After his battalion fought at Kesternich, Schmidt, and the Schwammenauel Dam, he was given a battlefield promotion to major. I was a major during my last two Iraq trips. I have his bronze major oak leaves at home. He became the battalion Executive Officer. I was the Operations Officer of my squadron in Duluth. On my second trip to Iraq to fly F-16s, one of the routine barrages of mortars got a little closer than normal and I was gritting my teeth after diving under my bunk. Then I thought about Major Jackson fighting house to house against the Germans in Kesternich…in a blizzard. Major Chandler stopped gritting his teeth quite as much.
I learned to water-ski at Grampie’s cabin in Maine. There’s a legend about my grandfather involving a water toy the family called a surfboard. It was a wide slab of wood like an oversized water ski with the handle built in. Apparently, Grampie would climb on the thing carrying a chair and a pipe. He’d sit in the chair on top of the surfboard, smoke some tobacco and wave like royalty as the boat towed him slowly around the lake.
I’m lost when it comes to the details of Grampie’s military life. At least I don’t have to speculate about his silliness. I learned about it first hand. Now, when I pull my T-shirt over my head to become the Monster With No Neck and chase my kids around, I think of Grampie. When my son gyrates around the house doing what we call the “alien dance,” I think of Grampie. When my daughter runs up to give me a hug and, instead, farts at me on purpose, I laugh, my wife is horrified, and some things seem timeless. I hope the silly gene keeps getting passed down.
I recently learned that the motto of Grampie’s regiment was “Jamais Trop Tard.” It means “Never Too Late” in French. In a nod to the French, I say this: Merde. It is too late. Was my grandfather a paper pusher? Or was he a grunt who led from the front? Did he start acting silly after the war? Or was he the same way before the war? Was being silly with us kids even sweeter because he survived the war? I was commissioned as a clueless second lieutenant the week he died. Twenty years later, I fish around on the internet trying to find answers to questions I never asked.
I hope I get to see Grampie again. While he’s getting towed around the lake, having a seated smoke, I’ll stroll out to the end of the dock and ask him what he did with the raspberry pie. Maybe later we’ll sit on the patio watching the fireworks and he’ll tell me what he thought about his war.