My Grandfather, A Korean War Veteran
This is not my usual photography post. It is much more personal and emotional for me. In light of memorial day weekend, I would like to share a few photos and an essay that I wrote in college about my grandfather, a Korean War veteran and a purple heart recipient.
My grandfather, Edward M. Nemeth, passed away in December of 2015. It was just before Christmas. My parents came to my house late in the evening, and I knew immediately that something was wrong. It always feels surreal to me when I'm told someone has passed. My mind just can't accept that this person, who was just there before me, solid and talking and laughing, is somehow gone.
I remember thinking,
But I was going to see him tomorrow. I packaged some of my Christmas cookies for him. I got him a card... I was going to see him tomorrow.
As if the very existence of my agenda should have been enough to sustain him. And then it hit me that I would not, in fact, be seeing him tomorrow. That I would not see him ever again. And that is when the tears came.
My grandfather was an extraordinary man - a man with such stories to tell. Not only war stories, but stories of his youth. Stories that made me wish I had known him when he was younger - that made me wish he was a friend of mine because what a friend he must have been. He was fearless and witty and strong and so much more. He would get a sparkle in his eyes and a grin on his face when he would talk about his younger years. But the war changed him. While he was still all those things, he was also someone new. There was a darkness that would creep over him at times and that darkness is what my essay is about.
As American civilians in our "little pink houses" we are, and have been, so far removed from the actual events of war that for the majority of us it is just a concept and in no way a reality. It is hard to imagine what people go through (and are going through) during war and combat, let alone the physical and psychological effects it can have on a person.
At his funeral, I read my college essay. We were given few guidelines for the essay we were tasked with - the only true guideline was that it was to be descriptive. Up until his funeral, less than a handful of my family had read it - I did not want to upset anyone. But I want to share it with you today. I want to once again recognize the sacrifices that he made for his country and I want to make sure those sacrifices are not forgotten with time. So please, read on...
When the Time Comes
My grandfather looks at me and I can see how the memories of the war have eroded his body into deep wrinkles of worry and experience. He does not have to say a word. It is in his every movement. It is written in his scarred flesh. It is in his sorrowful eyes. It is a part of his soul.
As an American soldier, my grandfather fought in the Korean War and it haunts him every second of every day, hovering over him like a thundercloud. He watched young men, fellow brothers of his country, being shot down beside him and he watched his own finger pull the cold, deadly trigger of a machine gun. He was flanked by death on all sides, as though it were a murky fog rising quickly around him; the bony hands of the grim reaper scratching at him every way he turned. In some godly miracle he emerged out of the darkness only to find that he could no longer see the light.
Even though he is no longer in Korea, he shivers as if he remains there in the frigid, snowy mountains. No amount of blankets or flannels will ever warm him to the core. His fingers tremble unconsciously after years of anticipation and fear of being caught off guard. He limps when he walks although his knobby knees have long since healed from the shrapnel. His beautiful, blue eyes are heartbreaking. They have betrayed him by allowing him to see evil in the world, and never allowing that image to fade. Anyone can see that they are full of pain and regrets of those he could not save, and even the guilt of his own survival. When I look at him, I am reminded always of the war and always what it has done to him.
Not everyone sees him in the same light that I do. They don’t recognize the sadness in his sunken cheeks or the hardships in his tired, calloused hands. Maybe it is because I have heard too many stories; I’ve been sent back with him to Korea too many times. Within our large, boisterous family, I am the one who listens.
We rarely have conversations that are not about his memories and past experiences of the time he served in the military. I am the keeper of these memories. He tells me his stories not just because I listen, but because, when the time comes, someone needs to know what he’s been through. He trusts me to preserve his experiences for the eager ears of future generations. I have written poems for him that tell his stories. I have drawn a black and white portrait of him as a young soldier in front of a colorful American flag, showing everyone he has served his country and served it well. These are my ways of telling him that everything he has done will not be forgotten, blown away in the wind. He will not leave this world without making an impression. His stories have left indelible impressions on my mind, as handprints leave impressions in setting concrete. I will not let him believe that he gave up his youth and his innocence for nothing.
The war is as much a part of him as petals to a flower, surrounding him and changing his appearance. He wears it like a heavy coat, but it is becoming a heavy burden. He is united with all of the terrible things he endured in a kind of matrimony. Only in death will he be free from the pain he has carried with him so long, just as in death the flower is relieved of its petals. He will sleep sound and warm in his bed. His blue eyes will see the beauty of the world once again. His tired, worn out body will be renewed. And his angelus wings will allow his legs a deserving rest from the hard, angry earth. But for now he trudges on, reluctant to part with those he loves even if his reward is the freedom he fought for.
I do believe my grandfather is at peace now, in a way he never could have been while he was here with us.
The following is a poem that I refer to in my essay. It was written years ago, I must have been around 12 years old. When I read it now I feel I did not do his memories justice, but he greatly valued it and always brought up "that poem you wrote for me" nearly every time I saw him. It was framed and hung in his home from the time I gave it to him until the time he died. Every now and then I would catch him reading it with a tear in his eye. "You captured it perfectly," he would say as he reached out to pull me in to a hug. More than anything I believe it gave him a sense of validation - he was being heard and, if nothing else, this poem would serve as a reference to his service and sacrifices. Words are only vibrations in air until they take the solid form of ink on paper. Only then do they have the power to withstand the test of time, unaltered.
I Was Once A Soldier
I was once a soldier, about 17 heading into Hell,
It was hard climbing on that ship, bidding my loved ones farewell.
As my ship sailed away, I wasn't sure what lay ahead,
Clueless of what my eyes would see, the people who'd end up dead.
As our ship landed, and our feet stepped ashore,
We ate little of what we had, though we were starving and wanted more.
The earth was bitter cold, fox holes were hard to dig,
It took hours to hike the mountains, they were so steep and big.
I never ran from my orders, I did my best and did not rebel,
I admit that it was hard, in that place that we called Hell.
People don't know what war really is, the people that did die,
They don't know until they look, deep in their enemies eyes.
We were brave and we were strong, as our hands dripped and bled,
We were very skilled, but also lucky we weren't dead.
Times were tough, but so were we,
We made it through, and saw more than you'll ever see.
If I had to go back, right now, this very day,
You wouldn't have to ask me twice, I'd go right away.
I was once a soldier, and still proud every day,
Because old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
If you have a war veteran in your life, or if you ever cross paths with one, thank them for their sacrifices but also take the time to listen to what they have to say. It means more than you know.