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The Normal Post I’m Not Posting

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Normal as in, consisting of political, religious, educational and/or cultural sniping critiques.

No worries – the usual mélange of podcast reviews, feminist fun, cultural tidbits, sarcasm, insightful commentary, bad puns (and occasional fart jokes) returns next week.

 

 

While going through our attic and other storage spaces I found a military pin belonging to my father, Chet Parnell. I added it to a box of (mostly) WWII memorabilia I keep in a closet, and thought I should write a description/explanation of the items in the box for the inheritors of it, my offspring, K and Belle.  While doing so I began thinking of thousands of families who likely have similar stories – and boxes – and may or may not know some of the stories behind them.  You might not give two snakes’ elbows for a story about my extended family; in that case, kick back and rewatch “Young Frankenstein” and remind yourself of what a great actor we had in Cloris Leachman.  But in hopes of sparking at least one other person to ask a family member about their past…or open a forgotten storage box in their own closet….

What follows is an edited version of the document I wrote for K and Belle.

*   *   *

 

The Combat Infantryman Badge is a U.S. Army military decoration awarded to infantrymen who fought in active ground combat while assigned as members of either an Infantry or Special Forces unit.

Your grandpa Chet was awarded this badge while in Alaska, serving with the 542nd paratroop infantry regiment, in the Aleutian Islands Campaign.

The Aleutian Islands campaign was…conducted by the USA and Japan in the Aleutian Islands, part of the Territory of Alaska, in the American theater and the Pacific theater of World War II.  In the only two invasions of the United States during the war, a small Japanese force occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska. The islands’ strategic value was their ability to control Pacific transportation routes.  Japan reasoned that control of the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. Similarly, the U.S. feared that the islands would be used as bases from which to carry out a full-scale aerial attack on U.S. West Coast cities. A battle to reclaim Attu was launched on May 11, 1943, and completed following a final Japanese banzai charge on May 29. On August 15 an invasion force landed on Kiska in the wake of a sustained three-week barrage, only to discover that the Japanese had withdrawn from the island on July 29.

The campaign is known as the “Forgotten Battle,” due to its being overshadowed by other events in the war. Military historians believe the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians was a diversionary or feint attack during the Battle of Midway, meant to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Midway Atoll, as it was launched simultaneously under the same commander, Isoroku Yamamoto. Some historians have argued against this interpretation, believing that the Japanese invaded the Aleutians to protect their northern flank, and did not intend it as a diversion.
(AIC excerpts from Wikipedia)

Although Chet’s unit was never directly involved the combat, he served in a combat zone.  The paratroopers stationed in Alaska had a dual mission: protecting the Alaskan territory from further Japanese invasion, and preparing for the invasion of Japan…which was stopped when the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Having served in a combat zone, Chet was eligible for “full military honors”  at his funeral.  He was proud of his service as a paratrooper, but told my mother that, when the time came, he wanted her to decline the offer of full honors, as he felt it belonged to soldiers who had actually faced enemy fire. Thus, at his funeral (as you two may remember) he had what is known as “Military Honors,” which consists of two or more uniformed military persons doing a military funeral honors ceremony, including the folding of and presenting to the survivors a United States burial flag, and the playing of Taps.

*   *   *

 

 

This is the enlisted soldier’s Signal Corps Badge.  Chet had that badge as well…and now I can’t remember where it is.

Each paratrooper had training as a rifleman/infantryman, and also in one or more specialties (besides learning how to jump from a plane and not die).  Chet was trained in Signal Corps duties (which he once described to me as, “Scrambling up the nearest tree” to set up long range cables).  After landing in enemy territory, his job would be to work with his unit’s radio operator(s) to set up radio communications.

*   *   *

 

This is a WWII U.S. Army Paratrooper badge (aka “jump wings” pin).  I also have this pin… somewhere.  Chet gave me both pins – the signal corps and jump wings – years before his death. I used to wear them, along with other pins, on a denim jacket (he got a kick out of that), then when the jacket was falling apart I took all the pins off and put them away for safekeeping…and now I have no idea where they are.  ;-(

*   *   *

The jacket in this box is a WWII paratrooper’s dress jacket.  It belonged to my favorite uncle, Bill O’Malley, my aunt Erva’s husband.   [1]   Bill O’Malley (“Billy” to his fellow soldiers) saw heavy combat in WWII – briefly in N. Africa, then in the European Theater of Operation (ETO).

I find what Bill experienced in WWII to be amazing, and I’m going to tell you what I know of it. Bill and Erva had no children to pass this on to, and their generation has all but died out – all gone, actually, on my side of the family.  It seems to me that someone (of a younger generation, ahem) should know his story, you know? My information is incomplete, and I won’t bore you with dates (most of which I don’t have, although I could look them up).  My purpose here is to convey some of what he went through. The words and phrases in quotes are, to the best of my memory, verbatim from what Bill (and in some cases, Chet or Erva or my grandmother) told me.

This information is pieced together from notes I made decades ago, plus many conversations Chet and I had about WWII and Bill O’Malley. The last and longest of these conversations a phone call the night before Chet died, during which I shared what Bill had told me when I’d visited Bill and Erva the summer after my fourth-grade year (I’d made a road trip to Spokane with my Aunt Gwen (Erva’s sister), Uncle Joe, and their son, Joey.  We all stayed at Erva’s & Bill’s Spokane house for two weeks).  I knew Uncle Bill had been a paratrooper, and one afternoon when the others were playing a lawn game in the backyard, I got Bill to sit down with me in his kitchen and talk about it.  Chet was flummoxed by some of the information I’d elicited;  Bill did *not* like to talk about the war and typically refused all entreaties – by adults – to do so (he did have a few war-related conversations over the years with Chet, whom he respected as a fellow paratrooper).  My theory is that, being a 10-year-old kid, I somehow disarmed Bill. My questions were sincere; I had no illusions about war “heroism” – I was just genuinely curious.  Bill didn’t have to impress or reassure me, the way he might have felt pressured to do by other adults.

*   *   *

When Bill enlisted in the paratroopers he was ~ five years older than the others in his unit (they were teens – early twenties; he was in his mid-twenties). His age and skills soon enabled him to hold the rank of sergeant (and he aspired to no higher rank).  After completing his paratrooper training Bill was assigned to the 82nd airborne division.   [2]

In N. Africa, during one of Bill’s first combat drops, the pilot of Bill’s plane made a navigational error and dropped its paratroopers over the wrong site – a fact which was not discussed nor even acknowledged by the army, as Bill later discovered when he made the obligatory report of the incident to his superiors.  One of its planes going in the opposite direction it was supposed to go – yikes.  It was quite an embarrassment to the Army higher-ups. Bad for soldier morale!

As in that jump and all others afterward, Bill jumped with his favorite weapon, his “tommy gun.”   [3]    Bill was the jump master, and after realizing they’d been dropped over the wrong site, he and his squad disagreed as to what to do next.  There was nothing but sand in all directions; Bill spotted an outcropping and insisted they follow it. His squad rebelled and went in the opposite direction without him, even after he (convinced that he was right, and that they were headed to their deaths) pulled his “tommy” on them and ordered them to follow him. The twelve paratroopers were never seen from again; they presumably died in the desert from exposure.

Bill, following the outcropping, wandered for days in the desert until he was rescued by a Brit in a jeep who was patrolling the perimeter of a nearby British military encampment.  By that time quite dehydrated, Bill thought he was hallucinating seeing the jeep, until it drove up to within a few feet of him.  The British officer exited his jeep and said to Bill, in the most stereotypical, slightly perturbed, upper-class British accent,

“I say old boy, what are you doing out here all alone?”

“You son of a bitch!” is how Bill began his reply….

Bill was reassigned to the ETO, to a unit serving in Italy.  In an incident which resulted in the largest “friendly fire” casualties of WWII, U.S. guns at Sicily fired at planes overhead, which were actually U.S. planes carrying U.S. paratroopers. The 504th Parachute Infantry was shot to pieces – two dozen of our own planes, shot down by “us.”  More than 300 U.S. soldiers died.  Bill survived that tragedy, did another jump in Italy (Salerno), and was reassigned again.  [4]   His next unit became part of the massive Allied paratroop drop into Normandy at D-Day.  After that he went on to fight in the Battle of Bulge.

Not surprisingly, Bill was hospitalized in France after the war had ended, for what was then called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” but which we now know as PTSD.

Although the army hospital doctors pronounced him “cured” after a few weeks of rest, Bill’s shell shock was not totally under control when he returned to the States.  His first date with Erva was “a humiliating disaster.”  Being out in public made him nervous; he couldn’t shake the feeling of being constantly “on patrol.”  Erva drove on their first date, as Bill had no car.  After picking Bill up, she was driving down the main street of their town when the car in front of hers backfired, the sound of which caused Bill to dive to the passenger’s seat floorboards (“Scared me half to death!” Erva said).  Bill was deeply embarrassed, and even more so when, ten minutes later, he had to ask Erva to take him back to his apartment so he could change clothes.  He had sweated through his clothing – completely soaked the three-piece suit he had worn, the suit he’d “bought special,” to impress Erva.

Gradually, Bill readjusted to civilian life.  When I asked him how he did this he replied, “I never had to pay for a cup of coffee.”   I assume the confused expression on my ten-year-old face is what sparked him to elaborate: After the war ended, soldiers were treated with kindness by everyone.  Although civilians did not want to hear anything about the war that “didn’t involve heroes,” they showered the returning GIs with respect, gratitude, and gifts (including job offers).  Bill also didn’t want to engage in war stories talk.  He found the eagerness of the nation to “get on with it” and look to the future to be helpful to him as he strove to forget/push aside his memories of what he’d seen and done in The War.

One “memory” he brought home with him was a German Shepard. He’d found the dog during one of his last maneuvers before he was hospitalized – somewhere in France, when he and his unit were patrolling a battle site. The dog, dehydrated and starving but still vigilant, was guarding the corpse of its (presumed) handler, a German soldier.

 

A scenario akin to this, only the Nazi was dead.

 

Bill spoke some German to the dog, shared his water and rations with it, and the dog transferred its loyalty to Bill.  The doctors at the hospital where Bill was treated agreed to let him keep it, and he was able to get it shipped back to the States with him.

Bill loved that dog  (I can’t remember what he named it; something ala, “Scout”). However, everyone he met back in the States was wary of it, and for good reason. The dog was huge, and would “greet” anyone who came to see Bill by silently approaching them (it supposedly never barked or growled), rearing up on its hind legs, resting its front paws on the visitor’s shoulders, and baring its teeth and looking them straight in the eyes, as if it were pondering, “Hmmm, should I rip your throat out, or go for the eyes first?”   Bill would speak to the dog in German, then he’d (attempt to) reassure his visitor:

“He won’t hurt you, but don’t make any sudden moves.”

Erva was terrified of the dog, as were Bill’s neighbors, who complained to his landlord about having to live next to a dangerous animal.   [5]  After they’d been dating several weeks, Erva told Bill, “It’s me or the dog,” and Bill found it another home.   [6]

*   *   *

After completing their paratrooper training and before shipping out to Europe, Bill and his paratrooper unit (company? regiment? whatever the terminology, it consisted of 105 men) shared their respective family contact info and made a pact to have a reunion after the war – the original 105 of them, no matter what outfits/companies/regiments they ended up being transferred to.  One of the men made good on that promised and organized the reunion a year after the war ended…but there were only five of the original 105 left alive.  The rest had died, in combat or in paratroop jump “accidents.” Of the five, Bill was the only one who had not been seriously injured (he’d twisted his ankle diving into a foxhole during a mortar attack at the Battle of the Bulge, but had never been shot or stabbed during combat, as the other survivors had been).

Those figures blow my mind, as an illustration of how much “action” Bill and his original company saw: a casualty rate of over 99% and a death rate of 95%.

 

 

Bill O’Malley’s paratrooper dress jacket.

 

 

Chet regretted that he didn’t keep his paratrooper dress jacket.   [7]   When Erva was dying,   [8]  she told my parents that she wanted Chet to have Bill’s jacket.   Bill and Chet had bonded over their paratrooper service, and Erva told me that Chet was Bill’s favorite of his “Hole Sisters” brothers-in-law.    [9]

 

*   *   *

May you have fun going through your attic;
May you remember that you don’t need 90% of what you put in your attic years ago, certain that you might “need it some day;”
May you share your family stories while you still can;
…and may the hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

 

[1] Erva O’Malley, nee Hole, was your grandma Marion’s eldest sister.

[2] The 82nd Airborne Division, first formed during WWI as an infantry division, earned the nickname “All-American” because, unlike the other army divisions at the time, its soldiers hailed from all 48 states.  The 82nd’s uniforms had a double “A” design shoulder patch insignia.

[3] A Thompson machine gun.

[4] Chet said Bill kept getting reassigned to regiments and infantries and squads – still within the 82nd division.  After battles with heavy casualties if the army needed you elsewhere, they sent you elsewhere, sometimes without the “proper” documentation, and soldiers went where they were told to go.  Chet was not sure of the numbers/names of the various infantries, companies, etc., Bill served with, and since Bill seldom talked about the war, the few times Bill was willing to offer information Chet just listened and didn’t press for such bureaucratic details.

[5] Presumably the dog, and not Bill.

[6] With another GI who’d served in the ETO.

[7] When Chet was discharged after the war he was given a train ticket home, and had limited luggage capacity – he  was unable to fit the paratrooper jacket into his suitcase (and was already wearing his uniform and two other jackets on top of that) and gave it to a GI buddy at the train station.

[8] From lung cancer, in 1998.  Bill died from a burst aortic aneurysm in 1969. He was 51.

[9] The Hole family sisters, now deceased:  Erva, Gwen, Ruth, and your grandma Marion.

The Military I’m Not Saluting

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And They Said The Honeymoon Wouldn’t Last

I sliced the steaming, freshly roasted squash down the middle, and sighed. “I love the aroma of roasted Delicata squash.” I waved a piece of squash under MH’s nose, and bid him to inhale.  “I just want you to know that.”

This is good to know, MH replied. He assured me that, upon my death, a Delicata squash would be cremated alongside my body.

 

*   *   *

The Verisimilitudinous Vermin of Autumn

I kick through the foliage detritus at least once a day, during my morning walk. Still, I never tire of the splendor of the Fall colors, which have a way of elevating and beautifying everything they surround…including, as I discovered ~ seven in the morning last Monday, the parking lot of a nearby athletic field. A brief portion of the otherwise mundane asphalt surface was transformed, however ephemerally, into Nature’s abstract palate, when I espied the desiccated, flattened carcass of a rat adorned by nature’s seasonal garland.

 

*   *   *

Belated Veterans Day Thoughts and Wishes

 

Thank you for your service.
(A phrase employed far too often, IMHO, by civilians, directed to military personnel)

I have come to despise that trope of alleged appreciation, even though I’ve no doubt it is used sincerely by many who wish to thank our brave men and women in uniform [1] for doing…well…what the rest of us would rather not spend much time thinking about.

It’s just too easy…it is too sanitized and safe. Thank you for your service – it’s as effective as, I’ll pray for you. It gives the spouter of the phrase the feel-good illusion of action, when in fact you’ve done nothing concrete.

You want to thank soldiers for their service? Lobby or work to insure veteran’s benefit reforms and to get our soldiers out of these never-ending, police-the-world wars…and, oh yeah, end the all-volunteer military and reinstate the draft and/or some form of compulsory national service.

 

 

Yes, really. Do you think we’d still be ass-deep in the AfghaniRaquPakistania quagmire if every American family had to face the possibility of their age-appropriate sons and daughters serving in the military?

Once again, I digress.

My intention for this segment was to honor a certain generation [2] for What They Did When They Did What They Had To Do. [3]

Six years ago my father, Chester Bryan (“Chet the Jet”) Parnell, had military honors at the graveside service following his funeral. The honors consisted of a brief observance involving a color guard, a gun salute, and presentation of an American flag to my mother, along with the “thanks of a grateful nation.” It was a ceremony Chet’s usually-not-impressed-with-such-things second born daughter [4] found very moving.

Although he never left the US of A during his military service, Chet was credited with serving in a combat zone. He and his fellow Army paratroopers stationed in Alaska were training for the inevitable invasion of Japan, and were also tasked with guarding the Aleutians, which the Japanese, as part of their Aleutian Islands campaign, were determined to invade and occupy. [5] Thus, Chet was eligible for “full” military honors at his funeral. Although Chet was proud of his WWII service he’d let us know in advance he didn’t want the full treatment (whatever that would involve – military flyover? Invasion of a small island in the Pacific?), out of respect for those soldiers who had engaged in active combat.

One day many years before Chet’s death, when my family was down in SoCal for a visit, Chet asked if MH could copy, enlarge and clarify a photo Chet had discovered while cleaning out his desk. The picture – actually, a small, wrinkled, time-worn copy of a picture sent from a paratrooper buddy – was one the few pictures Chet had from his Army days.  MH put his computer wizard /Photoshop skills to use, and was able to earn Son-In-Law Of The Year ® honors by providing Chet with a cleaned-up enlargement.  MH also had the enviable [6] task of informing Chet about a certain aspect of the picture, what I think of as a Photo With Benefits.  By enlarging the photo, a gesture made by one of Chet’s fellow soldiers – a “military salute” common among paratroopers but heretofore obscured by the photo’s size and lack of clarity – was clearly revealed.

At the time the picture was taken Chet of course was facing the camera, and had no idea how the other guys in the photo had posed. He got such a hoot out of it – which came as no surprise to me.  What was a wonderful surprise was how much my mother enjoyed the photographic revelation: she giggled like a schoolgirl who’d just understood her first A nun walks into a bar… joke  [7].

 

Chet, front row far left, looking tough (but cute).

 

*   *   *

Department Of Some Phone Calls Are Harder Than Others

And getting through some 12 minute phone calls can seem more exhausting than running a three hour marathon, when I’m constantly “on guard” during said calls, with a pins and needles/jaw clenching concentration, giving myself a headache that lasts the rest of the day, reminding myself of what to say as well as what not to say when the only truthful/logical response to what my elderly mother just asked would be to give the correct information….

However. I have learned from Compassionate Communication With The Memory-Impaired and other resources that when dealing with those afflicted with dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other conditions which beget memory-disabilities, compassion must trump rationality and logic. And even truth.

My mother’s truth, her reality, can change from day to day. I am well aware of this; still, the ups and down sometimes catch me seemingly unaware. This week I was pleasantly surprised by her lucidity and higher-than-usual energy mode – I’m always the one who calls, but she called me on my cellphone (she’d remembered– with a caretaker’s reminder – that she’d been napping when I’d called the previous day)! We were having a nice if boring conversation, and in a normal (for her) voice she asked how long it had been since MH’s father had died (Hey, she remembered he died! I silently rejoiced). When I answered her question about the relative suddenness of my FIL’s passing (Well, he’d been living with Parkinson’s for many years…), and she reacted with shock and horror to a fact she’s known for over a decade.

“No!” she gasped. “No!  How awful! I had no idea!’

I gently tried to steer the conversation to another subject, which led to the inadvertent revelation that she’d forgotten MH’s sister is married and has a 14 year old son. Her overt change of atone accompanied the implied, painful, fearful accusation: Why have you/has everyone been keeping this information from me?

And during our phone conversation next week she may well remember what she’d forgotten…and then forget something else. Like the existence of my children.

Her sudden plummet into the memory abyss hit me harder than usual this week. I found myself sitting in my car in a parking lot, fighting off a crying jag, holding my cellphone to my ear and nodding reassurances to someone who wasn’t there.

“Old age is no place for sissies.”
Bette Davis

*   *   *

Department of Can You Run A Tab At An Urgent Care Center?

Speaking of children I do remember, Belle is back to practicing with the UPS Women’s Rugby team, although she will not be playing in any league games until next semester, due to her broken finger and resultant surgery. Last week she took a hard blow to the chest during a practice. A visit to the Student Health Center and subsequent x-ray confirmed her coach’s fear: Belle had suffered a separated rib.

Belle’s (severely) broken finger occurred during a practice in early September. Last year’s injuries included a cracked rib and…I forget what else. Going through the mail last weekend, I told MH that it just isn’t a normal week unless we receive yet another Explanation of Benefits form from our insurance company, along with a bill from a doctor or a physical therapist or an urgent care center….

 

Good news – post game party in the Emergency Room, drinks are on Belle!

 

*   *   *

Department Of Need I Say More?

Happy Belated Exploding Whale Day! Forty-five years ago, yesterday, a day that put Oregon on the map…and gushy whale parts on anyone standing within a quarter mile range of the event:

*   *   *

May you remember and appreciate the service (and “salutes”) of others;
may your fondest memories be as fuzzy or clear as time permits;
may you find beauty in unexpected places and sights (and rodents);
and may the hijinks ensue.

 

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

 

 

[1] Another clichéd phrase I loathe.

[2] No, not “the Greatest” generation, and damn you, Tom Brokaw, for that well-meaning but inaccurate description…which Andy Rooney, bless his atheist heart, tried to counter at every opportunity.

[3] Which was actually Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the title of his epic WWII movie (okay…actually…not). Can you believe Saving Private Ryan won out?

[4] That would be moiself.

[5] They succeeded in occupying two: Kiska and Attu.

[6] In my opinion. MH was a little hesitant to reveal what he’d found, thinking it might be embarrassing (“Uh…will they – meaning my parents – be okay with this?”).

[7] A nun, badly needing to use a restroom, walked into a bar. The place was hopping with music and conversation, and every once in a while the lights would briefly flicker off and then go back on, whereupon the patrons would erupt into cheers. However, when the crowd saw the nun, the room went dead silent. The nun approached the bartender,and asked, ‘May I please use the restroom?”

“Sure,” the bartender replied, “but I gotta warn you: there’s a statue of a naked man in there wearing only a fig leaf.”

“Thank you; I’ll just look the other way,’ said the nun.

The bartender showed the nun to the back of the restaurant. After a few minutes she came back out, and other patrons stopped what they were doing and gave the nun a loud round of applause.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said to the bartender. “Why did they applaud for me just because I went to the restroom?”

“Well, now they know you’re one of us,’ said the bartender. “‘Would you like a drink?”

“No thank you,” said the puzzled nun, “but, I still don’t understand.”

“You see,” laughed the bartender, “every time someone lifts the fig leaf on that statue, the lights go out.”