Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Peering Through a Foggy Window

My mom's father died when she was just fourteen years old, so I never had the chance to know him.  In fact, my mom didn't really have a chance to know him.  When she was very young, he went off to fight in World War II and when he came home, seemed to have trouble assimilating into the regular day to day.  He was a hard worker so wasn't home much.  He was also an alcoholic, so even when he was home I gather he was fairly distant, although I'm not positive of that.

Although she has few memories of him, my mom remembers her dad mostly as a kind man.  His alcoholism didn't translate into abuse, mistreatment or even the other side of the spectrum.  He was neither cruel nor boisterous. According to my mom, he was simply a man who did the best he could in a time when much was expected of men and fathers in terms of maintaining pride and stoicism in the face of great challenges and triumphs.  He quit drinking a year before he died, knowing he had a problem but eventually succumbed to a heart attack.

What I just wrote above are the only facts I know about my grandfather.  I've come to terms with it in my adulthood because I've talked with my mom about him and I understand.  His legacy in our family never had a chance to form because he wasn't around long enough.

When I was younger, I longed to know more.  The only picture I remember having of him in the house was one small framed picture that sat on top of my mom's dresser in her bedroom.  I used to sit and stare at his warm, friendly smile and try to imagine what he had been like.  I wondered if he had been anything like my mom.  I assumed she had gotten her generous heart from her dad but I couldn't know for sure.  His face in that picture made me believe it though.  I remember wishing I could sit and chat with him, to find out if there were things he and I had in common too.  Once in a while, if I had misbehaved, I would go to my mom's room to look at his picture.  More than once, I imagined his disappointment and laid the picture face down, not wanting him to have to look at his naughty granddaughter.  I never told my mom this, and part of me has always wondered if she found it curious.  To come into her room and find the picture of her father laying face down on her dresser.

I still have this longing to know my grandfather but I think about it less often.  I don't have his picture but the memory of that one from my mom's room is burned into my brain.

This morning, my mom sent us kids a letter she just received from one of her brother's children.  Her brother died recently so his kids have been sorting through his belongings.  They came across this letter, written by James C. Hanrahan to my uncle in December of 1955.  I'm transcribing it here with my mom's blessing:

Dear Richard:

Your mother has written to me about the wonderful news of your approaching marriage on the 29th of this month, and since I regarded your father as my dearest and closest friend I want to offer my congratulations to you and my best wishes to your bride.

Your father was one of the most lovable men I have ever known.  The extent of his popularity among men was just wonderful to behold.  He was a very manly man and was literally as cool as a cucumber under fire.  He never panicked, he had a priceless sense of humor, he had a terrific brain, and all of these fine characteristics were wrapped up in the highest sense of honor.

My appraisal of your father is based upon hard knowledge gathered from almost two years of constant day-and-night, seven-days-a-week living with him from southern England to beyond the Elbe River in Germany over the route we traveled together with the 83rd Infantry Division in World War II.  I had the honor of meeting your dad at a place called Shrivenham in southern England where we both awaited assignment to a combat outfit prior to the invasion of Normandy.  I was older than your father and this is the only reason and the only respect in which I ranked him.  As I began to know him better and better, I began to scheme and plan as to how I could get him assigned to whatever outfit I might draw.  Initially we both were assigned to the VIII Corps from which I almost immediately was assigned down to headquarters of the 83rd Infantry Division which was a part of VIII Corps.  The chief of the staff section up at VIII Corps, Colonel Azel Hatch, had the same idea I had.  He wanted Gordon Briggs (my grandfather).  He kept him.  Never before or since have I been called upon to use as much salesmanship as I was during those weeks when Hatch refused to give up Briggs.  I finally won out, and I venture to think today that this pleased your father, and I know it was one of the luckiest breaks I enjoyed throughout the war.

I don't need to tell you that your father conducted himself brilliantly through five major campaigns in northern Europe - beginning with the Normandy Invasion, the Hurtgen Forest, the Ardennes, better known as "The Buldge", and the eventual meeting with the Russians about twenty miles east of the Elbe River and almost directly under Berlin.  Your father was with a unit of the United States Army which was in actual contact or combat with the Germans for 224 days.  He was exposed intimately to every hazard that such a contact implies, and it was only by the rarest good fortune that he emerged alive and unhurt. 

It was after the Battle of the Bulge when what was left of the 83rd Division was pulled back into a rest area that the Army made its only use of your father's legal training so far as I know.  There was to be a court martial of a young captain....who was accused of failure to obey orders and of cowardice in the face of the enemy.  It was understood that the death penalty was to be asked of the court.  Your father was appointed defense counsel in what was generally regarded around division headquarters as a lost cause.  The thumbs appeared to be down so far as the young captain was concerned.

As his defense counsel your father was premitted to spend many hours with the young man who was held in close arrest.  Your dad confided to me that he was convinced the young captian was a good officer, that he was not a coward, that he had been given stupid orders and that what was left of his company did not have the capability of carrying out the assignment given to him.  Your dad told me he was going to work towards obtaining an acquittal for the boy although the "best" advice seemed to be that your father should aim to try to get a prison term instead of the death penalty for the boy.

Gordon Briggs won his case.  During all of the preparation for the trial your father and I were bunked together in a little Belgian farmhouse, and night after night I would awaken to observe your dad still at work on his case although it was two or three o'clock in the morning.  The young officer was acquitted and immediately transferred to another infantry division...In his new assignment the young man went on to win the Bronze Star and the Silver Star and at the close of the war had been promoted to major and was an acting battalion commander.  Your old man had a lot of stuff on the ball.

With affectionate regards to your mother, your brother, and your sister, and the best of good wishes to yourself,

Yours sincerely,
James Hanrahan

I don't think I need to tell you I was in tears reading this and have been misty eyed all day, thinking about it.  I feel so grateful my mom now has this picture of her dad to add to her memories and that my suspicions are officially confirmed.  My grandfather was a great man.

Here's to the heroes out there, past and present.

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