At age 17, my grandfather went with his parents to the local recruiting office
and signed up for World War II
To save his country, to save his family,
To do the right thing.

He wanted to be a pilot.
But the Navy didn’t need pilots, so he sailed away on a transport ship
Down the mighty Mississippi, through the Canal,
and into the endless blue of the Pacific
Not knowing whether he would ever see his family again,
The family he intended to save.

After the war ended, the much older 18-year old
Sailed on LST 652 into a Japanese harbor, the first Allied ship to enter the port
after the surrender
the start of the occupation
White cloths tied to the greenery onshore waved in the sea breeze
A massive aircraft carrier was under construction but no longer needed
Hundreds of Japanese sailors lined the edge of the ship in full dress uniform
waiting for them
On command, every man on the carrier bowed to the waist in unison
My grandfather stood at the helm.

Finally, he returned to his family in east Texas,
Earned a college degree,
Met and married the love of his life,
Raised my mother and uncle in Wichita Falls,
Got a good job at the air force base
and even got to fly a little.

Years passed, and grandchildren appeared
He and his wife built a big house so all of us could visit,
A warm house with heated blankets, delicious food, laughter,
and almost more love than you could handle
Jerome Hines thundered “The Holy City” through their hi-fi system at Christmastime
And taught me what a bass voice could sound like
My grandfather retired while I was young,
So he had plenty of time to take us out for roller skating, putt-putt golf, movies,
Bowling, arcade games, underage driving lessons at the stadium,
and Japanese hibachi lunches
Plus they could drive down to see our recitals, plays, matches, and concerts
which was a treat once I began singing bass myself.

We often sat at the kitchen table, the whole family, and talked for hours –
Books, sports, war stories, history, politics, the goings-on of the family
Perhaps a bit odd for a shy kid like me,
But if I talked, he listened like I was the most important person in the world…
so maybe what little I had to say mattered more than I thought.

My senior year in college, when I got my first real job offer, I called my mom
and then my grandparents – always both of them –
because they genuinely wanted to know.
They had proven that my entire life.

A few years later, they moved to Irving to be closer to my mom and uncle
and all of the grandkids
We started getting married, raising our own kids.
When my wife went into labor with their first great-grandchild,
we were at their house
The house was different, but their kitchen table stayed the same
We sat at that table and talked for hours over lunch –
Books, sports, war stories, history, politics, the goings-on of the family…
and flying
He still listened like I was the most important person in the world.

Next summer, my wife and teenage sons will cross the Pacific
And sail around Japan, nearly 80 years after my grandfather did
Not for war, but to enjoy the freedom that my grandfather won for us
as a teenage boy who wanted to do the right thing.
As we pull into port, I’ll remember him standing at the helm of his ship,
barely older than my sons,
giving thanks that the war was over, that he’ll get to see his family again.
As we sail, I’ll give thanks as well
For one of the greatest men I’ve ever known
For the James Michener recommendation
For always sounding happy whenever I called or stopped by
For waving to us until we drove out of sight
For building us a fire on cold winter nights and letting us roast marshmallows
For teaching us to never stop reading and learning
For listening patiently without judgment
For the amazing prayers
For learning the Internet
For being humble, patient, and diplomatic no matter what
For loving Grandmother so well for their entire life together
For loving all of us more than we’ll ever know

Tailwinds and clear skies, Granddaddy. You finally got your wings.