I have been a terrifically lucky girl to have strong men in my life, and no two men have been stronger or more deserving of the title “hero” than my grandfathers.  They exemplified the bravery, valor, and courage that their generation—what Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest Generation”—asked of them.  I think about them every day and, on this Memorial Day, I honor their service to something greater than themselves.

My Grandpa Dewing was a straightforward man who really only spoke when things were worth saying.  Born and raised on a farm in Minnesota, he never had more than an eighth-grade education.  I once asked my grandmother, a teacher, why she married him and she said, “Because I liked his values.”  He truly was a man of good, solid character—I never once heard him utter a curse word, though my dad says it happened.  I imagine by the time I came into the world, he’d mellowed out a bit.

Grandpa Dewing

It’s this character that made my grandfather do what so many American men did at the time: enlist in the service during World War II.  He was a staff sergeant, and whenever an infantry man would get hurt on the front lines, Grandpa had the harrowing responsibility of taking their place.  He never talked about the War with us.  Like most men of that era, he didn’t really discuss it at all.  My Grandma Dewing said that whenever he’d get together with his old war buddies, they’d sit with each other and quietly nod their heads.  No one needed to say anything.  Perhaps no one could.

After he was wounded in Europe, he was sent to Battle Creek, Michigan to recuperate.  The story my grandma tells is that they met at a dance hall in her hometown of Chicago.  He asked her to dance but warned that he had “two left feet.”  She took it literally, thinking he actually lost his leg in battle and was now equipped with a wooden one—a second left one at that.

My Grampa B at 19.

My Grampa Basarowich was every bit as decent as Grandpa Dewing.  He, too, grew up on a farm and never graduated from school.  But, early on, he liked trouble—riding motorcycles and picking fights.  He enlisted in the army when he was not yet twenty, effectively ending his troublemaking days.  A Canadian, he fought with the Allies under General Montgomery, commander of the British forces.  If you paid attention, Grampa would share morsels of his wartime experience—dancing so hard in London that the floorboards came up, checking his sleeping bag and socks for scorpions in North Africa, bending down in a foxhole to light a cigarette only to come up and see his buddy shot through.

He rarely discussed actual combat, and would sometimes get a faraway look, as if he was suddenly possessed by a memory, and then, just as quickly, shake it off.  From all accounts, the campaign to liberate Sicily and Italy from the Axis was brutal.  After they reached Rome, an explosion knocked him unconscious and he woke up in a hospital in North Africa.  My understanding is that, had he not returned home after being wounded the second time, he would have been with his company as they prepared for the Normandy invasion.

World War II was an ever-present part of my life growing up.  We saw it in the shrapnel scars on Grampa B’s leg or felt it in Grandpa Dewing’s silences.  It cemented my feelings on war: use it only as a last resort, and, even then, think of another option.  And it made me believe that everyone who serves our country is deserving of our gratitude and respect.  As the Memorial Day parade passed outside my window a little over an hour ago, I could feel tears welling up at the sight of the men and women in uniform.  They look so young, and I am stunned to think my grandfathers were that age when they put their lives on the line.  “Thank you” hardly feels adequate.

After my Grandpa Dewing’s funeral, only the five of us—me, my father, my cousin, my uncle, and my grandmother—attended his burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.  My grandmother watched as we lifted his casket and placed it on the catafalque.  I remember using all my strength to help carry it, not because it was heavy, which it was, but because I wanted to pay tribute to him one last time.  The honor guard played “Taps”—which, to this day, makes me cry—and handed my grandmother the folded American flag that had draped his coffin.  As we drove off, I sat in the backseat and suddenly turned around to see a truck directly behind us on the highway.  The driver was wearing a 1940’s style fedora, an odd sight even for 1996, and his face looked eerily familiar—like the face I’d only seen in pictures, the face of a young man, just returned from war, who would go on to raise a family and one day welcome his first grandchild, a girl named Camille, into the world.