my island in the sun

10 11 2008

The first shots rang out in unison.  The second – staggered by a few seconds.  It was the third rifle volley that is burned in my brain.  Pop  – pop, pop — pop, pop…pop…and I looked over to see the last vet still crouched in his firing stance as if he had a squirrel in the crosshairs waiting for that magical millisecond when he knew he had could kiss his target farewell…finally – POP! There was no squirrel (but Billy would have liked that) and the “rifle” had no sights.  Nonetheless, it certainly is a scene that I expect to see played out on the big screen some day when it fits into something that Best Boy has planned.  Think Elisabethtown – and the burning “Free Bird”.  But there it was – my dad’s 21 gun salute. Well not technically, but the rounds customary at veterans’ funerals. 

We’d already sung the Navy Hymn at the church…so we waited in silence graveside as the flag was ceremoniously folded and respectfully placed into my mother’s outstretched arms before Taps was played.  My dad loved beautifully made flags – the one drapped over his coffin was one he would have loved.  Now the triangle of stars and stripes was her’s. The little added bonus of being a veteran, afforded us this final salute.  I must admit that other than knowing he’d served in the Navy during WWII, there are huge gaps in what I know about specifics.


I remember hearing that he was on an island I was named after –  Woendi island working in dry dock, repairing ships.  Pouring over a huge atlas we had in the house, he’d get to the South Pacific and point out that tiny atol not far from New Guinea.  He would talk about the fruit bats or flying foxes being so thick in the sky as to darken the sun with their 6 foot wing spans.  There was talk of the tremendous heat and humidity…so much so that coming back to Chicago in the summer still had him in his wool pea coat because it seemed cold.  

Back in 1994 when the Dr. and I were still living in Europe, we took a three week vacation of a lifetime driving from Madrid up to Bergen, Norway.  The motivation of our trip was to reach Legoland in Denmark before Best Boy was too old for Traffic School.  Best I can remember of that was Shop Girl getting stuck in the round-a-bouts and getting singled out over the loud speaker.  “Car Three, please exit the round-a-bout.  Please exit the round-a-bout!”  And no she hasn’t been driving in circles ever since!

As we planned our meandering through the miles, we realized that we could visit Normandy just before the 50th anniversary of D-Day.  That is when WWII became a reality to me.  Standing among endless white crosses at Colleville-Sur-Mer and thinking about what it all meant…and to know that my mom’s brother was on Gold Beach on D-Day and lived.  The stories and lives of so many families were marked by that day – those battles.  

So here we are on the eve of another Veteran’s Day – usually just a day that I am annoyed because we don’t get mail.  Shame shame on me.  For lots of reasons, it means more to me this year:  because my dad’s navy uniform is one of the only things left in his closet and it won’t answer me when I ask it questions.  Because I’m angry that my retired navy Captain uncle has an estranged family that doesn’t seem to care about him let alone what he did for our country.  Then there is my dad’s brother who was a Navy diver who married a WAVE and she will be celebrating her 91st birthday this week.  But this year I’m also aware because there are still lives being lost – family histories that will be scarred today, tomorrow and the next day.  Moms losing their Best Boys and Shop GIrls.

I’d feel desperate that our rich personal history will fade as the ranks of the Greatest Generation thins, were it not for a nephew marking out his career as a historian…and a Best Boy who tells stories another way and the stories the other grandkids will choose to tell their children when the subject comes up.  We keep history alive in our families because we choose to.  I’ll do my part trying to digitize every old photo I can get in my hands.

So today I pause…more un-informed than I should be…more passive than I ought to be…but grateful just the same for those who have fought, are fighting and will continue to fight so that I can sit on my couch and be free to say what I’d like.  Thank you.

And since it’s early in the week and the snow is starting to fly here in the north…I leave you with a little Spike Jonze and Weezer.  To Woendi Island and me!

(p.s. Garrett, tell your dad to let you watch the video!!!  And ask him if I can buy you a copy of the book – Walter the Farting Dog – for Christmas).