I was watching Saving Private Ryan recently, and my thoughts turned to Mr. Roy Griffin.
Roy is a gentleman 90 years of age who lives by himself in a house with a large vegetable garden a block north of my house on Tyler Street in Hillcrest. I’ve met him only twice. On a particularly chilly Sunday morning a few years ago, I was stepping out in my pajamas to get the newspaper when my front door closed behind me, locking me out. Barefoot in 35 degree weather at 8 a.m. on a Sunday, I knocked on a couple of neighbors’ doors to no avail. A black Ford SUV pulled up and the man at the wheel was Mr. Roy Griffin, on his way to church. He asked me if I needed a ride somewhere, and I figured my friend Sara’s place would be the next best bet, so he took me there.
He told me, “I know what it’s like to be cold. I spent a winter in Belgium in World War II.”
He dropped me off at Sara’s and waited with me until she answered the door (which she did very grumpily, of course). I just needed to get the number of my friend Kathy, who had my spare key, so I waved Mr. Griffin goodbye and he went on his way. A few days later I took him some cookies to say thanks. He was on the phone when I went by, so I didn’t stay to visit. And, because I’m naturally kind of shy, I never got around to going back to his house just to chat.
Truthfully, his statement about knowing the true meaning of the word “cold” always kind of intimidated me. I never figured I’d have anything to offer the guy – he’s a WWII vet who still drives to church and works in his very impressive garden, so the guy is clearly tough as nails.
And today I found out just how tough. I Googled him. As it turns out, AETN has a vast website of veteran interviews and archives at InTheirWords.org. Here is Mr. Griffin’s page. He was an amphibious engineer in the Army. He fought WWII from the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia to Omaha Beach, and helped liberate the concentration camp at Buchenwald. It’s a lot to dig through, but here are some highlights to get you interested.
From Video #9:
When I first come home, I was just hanging. What I wanted to do most of all was to get my feet on the ground, just be a normal person. And I could picture myself going way out into the Rocky Mountains and get so far out I couldn’t hear a train blow or nothing. It didn’t work that way. I know if it hadn’t been for my family I’d have probably lost it all. I never did get depressed, but I was worried because I was with this tough outfit for five years.
Also in that video, he tells about finally getting home from the war, to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, just a few hours from his hometown of Yazoo City. He was being told about his options for assignment, none of which involved getting home to see his family any time soon. When an officer told him he didn’t have any privileges while awaiting assignment, he said:
Then I told him which side his bread was oleo’d on. “I’m a tell you something. I haven’t seen my wife in three years. Do you think I’d recognize her if she walked in?” I said, “if you need me in the next few days, get a bunch and come after me, don’t come by yourself. Just sure as God made little green apples, I’m gonna go home.”
I won’t give away the ending, because it’s great.
All of this made me realize that war stories are only stories to those who didn’t live them. The rest of us can only sit back and be fascinated and enthralled. Reading about Saving Private Ryan on IMDb.com, I see in the trivia section that the film is listed as President Bush’s favorite movie. Neither President Bush nor I have ever seen combat, but I can’t help feeling like he missed a lesson there: War is a last resort. And as the world is coming to a slow realization that the Iraq War represents either the world’s most colossal intelligence blunder or the world’s most cynical exploitation of warfare for corporate gain (or both!), maybe we’ll even start to realize that there was a justifiable war once.
And even it was hell.
Happy New Year. Here’s to 2009 being a time for learning lessons.