Great Grandpa

By:  Jordan Blank

Creative Nonfiction, 2018

Great-grandpa spent the majority of his life at the bottom of a bottle. I never knew him, but that’s what they tell me. They say it was to drown out the memories. Memories of his time spent overseas in the Pacific Theater, during World War II. Grandpa manned the 50 cal., the big machine gun that was mounted on the backs of the transports or on tripods.

“It would mow through them,” he said, “Bodies everywhere. They didn’t stand a chance. They’d run at us, and I’d shoot.”

That’s what they tell me, anyway.

There’s a picture of Grandpa, sitting on the picture table at home. Right next to the one of Great-grandma, who he married after the war. He’s all dressed up in uniform, smiling. My grandpa was a handsome man, it’s no wonder Grandma married him. It’s hard to imagine him manning a machine gun, mowing people down.

Great-grandpa received a whole row of medals. Grandma keeps them on a plaque in her house. They’re nice medals, little reminders of the acts of heroism Grandpa took part in. Surely, all those medals mean that Grandpa was a hero. What’s more heroic than risking his life for his country?

Great-grandpa got loose-lipped when was drunk. He drank to keep from remembering, but he remembered best when he was drunk. He liked to fish and cook up whatever he caught. He’d stand over the stove, frying fish in beer, drinking some and then dumping more into the pan. He always put too much into the food when he was drinking heavily. But, other than that, he was a good cook.

That’s what they tell me, anyway.

They say he’d get drunk and tell stories about the War. About how he got to the place where he couldn’t stomach killing people so easily, watching them get mowed down by the 50 cal., and went to work in the kitchen instead. About how he peeled potatoes instead of going to church when the chaplain came around. I wonder if he had access to alcohol on the field. I wonder if he started drinking before he quit the 50 cal.

It was Grandpa’s stories that taught me that the Nazis and Japanese weren’t monsters. The victor writes history and that’s what they wrote them as. But Grandpa knew. Grandpa knew that it isn’t whole groups that are monsters, just individual men. He knew that the American soldiers could be just as monstrous as the Japanese. When Grandpa got drunk, Grandpa told what he knew.

He said that, after the Americans had taken one of the battlefields, they made camp and settled down for the night. I never knew Grandpa, but I can picture him sitting in his and Greatgrandma’s house, sipping a beer, telling the story. About how a group of the men got restless and went out to find something to do. They got a hold of a Japanese woman. They raped her, he said, in turns. Then they tied her to a tree and used her for target practice.

They never told me if he was one of the men in the story. They said he never told them either.

Grandpa was drunk most of the time, but he was a good guy. He liked to tease and joke around. He loved his grandkids and, when my mom brought my dad over for the first time, Grandpa had a great time making fun of him. He and dad got along just fine, though dad resented the teasing a bit. Grandpa would have loved us great-grandkids and teased us too.

That’s what they tell me, anyway.

I was on the internet one day, on a site where people from all over the world can log on and discuss literature and films. One guy, a British guy, started talking badly about the American soldiers who’d served in the Pacific theater. He said that he had watched a documentary and that it had talked about how inhumane they were towards the Japanese. I got mad. He was talking about my Grandpa and a lot of other men, many of whom lost their lives in the war. I took him up on his argument.

Grandpa lost his sanity to PTSD, so that I could be free, and so did a lot of others. They were the lucky ones, though, the ones who didn’t die. Even if he was just one man, he fought so that Hitler wouldn’t take over the world. He fought so that we could live as we do today. Grandpa was a hero, even if he did have to kill, there was a reason for it.

That’s what I said, anyway.

But then I got to thinking. I don’t know if Grandpa would call himself a hero. I don’t know if he accepted those medals with pride. I don’t know if he was one of those monsters who raped that woman with the other soldiers.

But he was a good guy. He loved his family and his country. That’s why he went to war. That’s why he manned the 50 cal. and mowed through the bodies of the enemy. That’s why he had the blood of so many on his hands.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway.