I meant to be back here earlier, truly, but I’ve been fighting some kind of nefarious sinus infection, and yesterday was pretty much a loss. My breathing is not the best, and I stumble around the house sounding like an air-wrench at a tire shop, just trying to pull O2 through my nose. So there is that.
For the Arizona trip I took a companion, one I’ve traveled with before: Goodbye, Darkness, by William Manchester. Some of you may know of this memoir. Manchester was a brilliant New England college kid who joined the Marine Corps after Pearl Harbor. They sent him to OCS, where only a few days shy of graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant, at the top of his class, he told them to stuff their commission. A series of duplicitous and outrageous incidents caused him to believe he could never be “officer material.” I know that feeling. The nabobs at my former police department convinced me of the same thing. At any rate, Manchester was made a sergeant, then, and shipped him out to the Pacific, where he fought at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In the book he travels back to the islands. Not just the islands he fought on, but many of the islands of the pacific campaign, including Tarawa, Peleliu, Guam, Iwo Jima, and the Phillipines. The book is Manchester’s personal reconciliation with the absolute horrors he witnessed and experienced. He is an older man when he returns, and in the memoir he is haunted by an old Sergeant in his dreams each night, an accusatory, salty, and challenging version of himself. By day Manchester hauls himself through the same jungles, sweating out memories and striving to shake hands with that young Sergeant over the hard moat of time.
The book is a masterpiece. Hands down. Every American should read it.
A few weeks ago I had the honor interviewing an Iwo Jima veteran, Bob Grooney, for the Sisters, Oregon, Guide. I met him at the liquor store–we have only one liquor store in Sisters, and in Oregon that is the only place you can buy liquor–and Bob owns it, has owned it for decades. I had called Bob earlier to schedule the interview, and by way of bonafides had told him I was a Marine, and that my grandfather was a Marine who had been at Bougainville, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.
I won’t tell you about the interview, you’ll have to read the Guide for that, but I will tell you this: when I arrived at the Gallimaufry–the name of our liquor store, that for other reasons Wendy and I have always called the Gallifinakis–Bob took me into the storage room, away from the crush of folks in the store stocking up on their short dogs and bottles of Captain Morgan.
So we were standing in there, among the boxes and crates, when Bob went over to the corner, bent over, then came back to where I was standing. In his hand he had a small bottle. In that bottle was sand from Yellow Beach on Iwo Jima, where he had landed with the 25th Marines in 1945.
Bob Grooney was 15 years old when he joined the Marine Corps. 15. He was on Iwo Jima, where 7,000 Marines were killed, from D+1–his outfit couldn’t land on the first day because the beach was an utter chaotic disaster–until the end of the fight.
Bob gave me that bottle of Iwo sand. For Marines, Iwo Jima is sacred, and Bob’s gesture was the equivalent of being handed a piece of the true cross, by someone who was there when Christ was lifted up. That doesn’t overstate it, particularly if you have a real blood connection to the place. You don’t have to understand, but standing there, in that stock room, holding that bottle of sand, it was everything I could do to prevent myself from bursting into a flood of tears. I can’t articulate it, but it’s real, that brotherhood of Marines, and it stretches through generations. In a world presently carved into pockets of surly identity politics and meaningless grievance theater, I thank God for that brotherhood. And it isn’t just among Marines. Last week in Arizona I felt it–and the feeling is hard to describe, but it’s something about family, where all is forgiven, where no one is left behind, where you are going to take rations of shit, and give them back, and it’s all good, and where the mission matters–with veteran dogfaces from the US Army. And I loved every second of it; I always will.
I put the bottle, which Bob had thoughtfully labeled with his outfit’s name, the place where the sand was collected, and the dates of his service on Iwo, on the shelf in my gun cabinet, next to a color photo he had taken from the top of Suribachi–which he also gave me–when he returned for a memorial in 2005. And they reside there now, beside other photos and mementos of other sandy and less desirable places.
I hope, some day, I will be able to pass these things on, the way Manchester does in his book, and the way Bob Grooney did for me in the store room of his liquor store. At the end of the day we have our memories, and our artifacts, and a solemn and sacred duty to pass them forward, in a meaningful way, so that they might come to life for our descendants in the future–whatever that may hold.