Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Great People

What does it take to be a Great Person?
by Charlie Leck [2 June 2007]

I wrote the following on Memorial Day, 2007,and tucked it privately away because it is so personal. The more I thought about the piece,the more I wanted to share it.

In the last few days, a person I greatly admired died. He was an Italian-American from Saint Paul. A good guy. A tough guy. An honest guy. An involved and contributing guy! Someone in the newspaper called him “a great person” and that set me to thinking. That is quite a label to affix to anyone. What do you think? What does it take?

Tough question, isn’t it? What is great in the history books is very different than what is great to people within a community. And, it’s even still different to those within a family or close-knit group of people.

When Edge Jackson died not too long ago, the newspaper never quoted anyone who called him a great man. He clearly was. I could find hundreds of his friends who would confirm that. An old Hungarian-American friend of mine died recently. He was an extraordinary horseman. The communist party had imprisoned him a couple of times as an enemy of the state. Some friends helped him escape to America. There was no mention of him in the newspapers when he died; yet, he was a great man. I knew an old-timer up in Saint Croix Falls, Ray Nelson, who was active in the Socialist Workers Party during his younger years. I loved chatting with him. His biggest concern was the welfare of the common working man. You would never find a nicer man. He was dedicated and he was a great guy. How I’d love to talk politics with him today.

We went to the cemetery yesterday to stand quietly by the graves of some of my wife’s remarkable family. Her great-great grandfather, Bradford Wakefield, was a pioneer who brought his family across the country and set up a home in a settlement house just a few miles from here. They endured difficult times and, with other brave settlers, they built an extraordinary community on the beautiful lake that the natives called Minn-ee-tonka. Great people? I’d say so!

I mean, when I think of great people, I think of my old man. Now, no one else in the universe, aside from my brothers and sister, will probably understand my rationale. The world will never see my father as a great man. Yet, when one takes an accounting, he rates as a pretty decent human being to everyone. To those who love him, he was a great person.

My dad served his country in the “war to end all wars” – the “great war” – the First World War. That was the mustard gas war. You’ll know it as such if you’ve done much reading about it. Lots of soldiers came home with mangled brains, affected by gaseous weapons used by the Germans. My old man was of German descent. As an American cavalryman, he had to go and fight his own people. He was among those called upon to move the artillery closer and closer to the front. Avoid the gas! Avoid the gas!

It was nigh on to impossible to get him to talk about it. That was common among the veterans of that war to end all wars that didn’t. So many Englishmen died. So many Americans didn’t, but came home with hideous wounds and burned up insides. If they didn’t come home with those maladies, they came home with illnesses of the mind. Many of them couldn’t sleep well for years. Some would awaken, cussing and screaming for the rest of their lives.

Less than two dozen years after the first one ended, the second global war came along. The guys from the first were forgotten. There wasn’t time to remember. The entire country was called upon to engage in the fight against the enemy. The young boys and men went to war in Europe and the South Pacific. The women had to pick up what the men were doing, no matter how difficult, and get the job done.

My father didn’t want to talk about the war – at least to me; for I was too young to hear the stories of death and destruction. The old man would read long newspaper reports during quiet moments of the day. Late at night he’d lean his head toward the speakers on the big radio, to hear what the war correspondents were saying.

I was but a wee-one on the day the fighting ended completely. Nevertheless, I remember the revelry, the excitement, the noise and all that laughter. Right across the street, less than a hundred yards away, in the Chester House, I could hear the adults singing and shouting out cheers of joy and victory. They were singing: “When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.” The happiness was for all the boys who’d be coming home. However, not all of them would. Some would be left behind in Normandy and places like Flanders Field.

Guys like my father felt the joy deeper down than all those who hadn’t experienced the horror of all-out war. In 1945 he was a happy, happy man. Yet, he still awoke at night, swearing like a soldier in battle. In his nightmares he could see the mustard gas rolling across the meadows. Sirens sounded and soldiers shouted warnings to one another. He heard it in his dreams and he cussed out loud. From where I slept, I could hear him and it frightened me.

Today I understand it better. My father went to war when he was just a bit more than a boy. He came home with his youth spent. He was a hero in the Bronx for a day or two. Then it was back to work, doing whatever he could find to do. The nation slowly forgot the war. The boys who were there, and smelled the mustard gas, didn’t ever forget.

My father was a great man. I always think of him on Memorial Day. There is no grave to go to and no monument upon which to mount a poppy or lay some flowers. The monument is in my mind and heart. I stand quietly before it and I can hear them still. Across the street they are dancing and cheering and drinking to the boys who went to war for us. I crawled out through my opened window, on to the roof of the front porch. No one would see me. I could better hear all the happiness and joy from out there. I could hear my father’s voice, shouting in merriment. He was oh so happy that the boys would be coming home again.

On the morrow he’d spend another one of those 14 hour, grueling days tending the store. There were no rest days and no days off. He had a family and there were no options. Day after day! Year after year! He did it for me and my brothers and my sister. Then mother became ill and grew worse and worse. To all his other tasks, my father added taking care of mother. Mostly, he did it graciously and with good cheer. The burden must have been awesome. It must have been so difficult for him to see the woman he loved suffer so.

This is what a great man is. It isn’t movie stars and entertainment celebrities. It’s not professional sports figures. Not political leaders. Not writers and news people. My old man was a great man. He did his job every day of his life for the sake of his family.

It was an incredible feeling, as a five-year-old, to sit out on the roof of the porch, listening to him having such a great time. I wanted the happiness and revelry to go on forever.

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy, Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy Hurrah! Hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Get ready for the Jubilee, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give the hero three times three, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

1 comment:

  1. Charlie - I really enjoyed your article. My father was in the first war also. He was 16 and in the front lines and my uncle was in the calvary. They were East Prussians. My dad felt mustard gas was unethical and would lag to the end of the line and when no one was looking would get rid of it. He took a big chance doing that. My uncle was in a unit that had skull and crossbones on their helmets - he was a captain - and they could not retreat from a charge. They would charge and many times would have to dismount and leave the horses tied and then go into the ditch that was dug to fight from. He had one horse that would untie herself and go looking for him. The enemy also were calvary units and when they would see the horse walking along looking in the dugout for her master they would hold their fire until he could get out and lead her back to tie her and get back into place. He said neither he or his horse were ever shot at during that time. She was killed in a charge - one of seven horses shot out from under him. In my father's late years he would tell me many kindnesses he experienced when in French hospitals and many brutalities by his commanding officers to their own men. He was a Lieutenant in the army. He left Germany a short time after the war ended and was so happy to come to America. He never took his freedom and this great country for granted and made sure my brother and I knew the differences between our country and all others. My uncle never left Germany. He became the head of displaced persons shortly after WWII and during the war was mostly with the Spanish Riding School in Pieber. He was closely watched and the family was threatened. History is often repeated and we must value what we have as a country and protect it with a passion.