Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Morning Thanks--on his birthday

There was family here, somewhere out south of Ireton, somewhere around a town that barely exists anymore, a town with an odd, Irish name, a place called McNally. There was family here, and that's why his grandfather chose northwest Iowa as the place he'd take his own family when immigration became his dream. They left Gelderland, the Netherlands, and came to Iowa, a name and a place they must have found terribly hard to pronounce.

His father came with, was an immigrant too, but he himself was born here on the emerald eastern edge of the Great Plains so he has no old country memories. Which is not to say he grew up like some ordinary American kid. Dutch was spoken exclusively in the home, and it was, I'm sure, the language of the street in Orange City (named after "the House of," after all), where he and his father's family eventually worshiped when they moved four north and two east of town.

His education consisted of eight years of grade school; but then, in a family of ten kids, he the oldest boy, his traipsing off to school every day was simply not an option. After all, he'd already gotten his share of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I'm sure he didn't squawk. Leaving school after the eighth grade was a way of life out in the country back then. Besides, he loved to farm.

Still, if you ask him about regrets today, he'd say that he wished he'd have had more schooling because he thinks schooling would have made him smoother, more nimble in conversation, more conversant about things. He'd have been taught more about life.

Instead, he got his education elsewhere, when driving a team of horses, for instance. Once upon a time, he says, his own team went berserk, got wild on him, and took off through the ditches in an awful panic. He tried to hold them back but couldn't, and actually thought for a moment or two, bouncing over culverts, that he was going to die. When he told the story, I saw a level of fear in his eyes I'd never really seen before.

He remembers talking with friends about this perplexing idea that God has already chosen the righteous, that there's nothing we can do about it if we're among 'em, that maybe--just maybe--there's no such thing as free will. He says he remembers mulling that over beneath the stars when he was a kid, a teenager.  After all, it's what he'd been taught in catechism, what everyone around him believed.

In the early 1940s, he went to war with literally dozens of other catechumins from First CRC, Orange City, almost forty men from just one church in town. Soon enough, the army noticed this farm kid could fix just about anything, and they assigned him to mechanic school, where he learned how to bring sputtering tanks and jeeps and whatever else back to life.

He spent some time with thousands of other GIs in England in the spring of 1944; then, a couple weeks after D-Day, went over to Normandy just like so many others had before him. Their landing craft weren't shot at. Earlier waves of troops had taken out the Nazi shore batteries in the greatest sea invasion of all time. Thousands died right there in the water, on the sand beneath his feet. 

He and his unit lugged their tools along and became part of the motor pool, basically followed the front from the shores of Normandy all the way to Berlin. It's almost impossible today to think of him, wrench in hand, working over a Sherman tank, but he likely did--there were 5000 of them over there after D-Day. The deep friendships that grew out of all that grunt work didn't die until his friends did. We took him to his last reunion when the ranks had already thinned deeply. I don't know that anyone but a veteran can describe what we saw when those old men were reunited.

While he was somewhere in France or Holland or Germany, his brother Charles, another GI, died in the Philippines.

His own motor pool unit was bound for the South Pacific once the Nazis threw in the towel, but Truman sent a couple of planes over Japan carrying cargo that changed the world, and that was that. Instead, he came home.

A couple years later, he married one of the prettiest girls in Orange City, a farm girl who'd moved to town when her father died, a tall, dark-haired beauty who'd been a Tulip Queen, a woman who had herself lost another soldier, a man killed right there on Omaha Beach.

The first year they were married, they lived out on a farm near the home place. They put in a crop, watched it grow green and strong, then one hot July day lost it all to hail. In order to get back on his feet, he went into town and worked at a garage for a couple of years. After all, the man had real skills with engines. He could fix anything.

Some years later, he went to the bank and took out a loan to buy some Iowa farm land of his own. It was a risky venture, five or six hundred an acre. His father, then retired, was pitching horseshoes in the Orange City park when one of the old geezers mentioned that he'd heard Randall had bought some land out there around the home place.

Fifteen minutes later, Grandpa was there on the yard shaking his head at his son, telling him he didn't know what he was doing. Today, he says, he wishes he'd have bought more at those prices.

He and his Tulip Queen had one child, a girl, just as pretty as her mom. That child is my wife.

I'm talking about my father-in-law, who today celebrates 95 years of life out here on the eastern emerald edge of the Great Plains, with just a few years absence during a stint in Europe that no one can take away from him.

He's a quiet man with sharp sense of humor and a capacity to love that's extraordinary. If, as some think, old men simply get cranky, then I got news: this one, my father-in-law, at 95 years old, is still really a kid. 

And that's a blessing.

As is he.


Anonymous said...

The photo of honeymooners in Arnold's Park with the wooden framed roller coaster and the "Fun House" in the back- ground bring back many memories. The most vivid are; the sign on the peak of the roller coaster stating "THE POINT OF NO RETURN", and the release of a shot of compressed air from a small hole in the floor which projected the skirts above their heads of nieve women as they walked across a stage when they entered the "FUN HOUSE".

Slice of Orange said...

Simply beautiful Jim. Randall is such a lovely, kind and wise gentleman. It's a gift to know him!