My maternal grandfather is turning 90. 90! He’s my last remaining grandparent, and as such, is very special to me. A World War II veteran, a farmer, a pilot, a father, husband, and grandfather, he has a great sense of humor — and is still sharp as a tack.
Because I’m a huge fan of history and genealogy, I feel it’s important to record our family history. About five years ago I asked Grandpa where he bought my grandmother’s wedding ring (which I’ve inherited), and was treated to an hour-long recounting of their courtship, indelibly linked with his time serving in the Navy in WWII. I wrote down what I remembered at the time, but knew I also wanted to preserve his memories. So when I was visiting home a couple of years ago, I sat down with him for a couple of hours and videotaped him talking about his experiences.
And then it took another year, until I was back home, to get the files off my uncle’s computer; and another year after that before I finally just threw money at the problem and had it typed by a professional transcriptionist. (Actually, two — the first did such a poor job I had to get it re-done.) I’m sure Grandpa had forgotten all about the project, but I hadn’t. And it worked out that just as I was starting to make the final edits a few weeks ago, his 90th birthday was approaching.
The whole project became much, much bigger than a mere video transcription. I feverishly added photos, footnotes, and the documents I’d written when he told the courtship story. The deadline was looming — the family birthday party — so I knew it had to get done. But what I didn’t expect was how much fun I’d have doing it, or that it would change the relationship between parent and children. I was on a high for days, and writing this blog post is making me excited all over again.
Here’s what I wrote to a family member after the project:
I don’t know why, but I’ve been SO happy looking at what I made. I keep opening it on my computer to look at it. It’s not just the feedback from other people — I felt that way even before it started pouring in.
I think it’s a combination of factors:
~it’s finally done. The transcription/editing has been hanging over my head for two years now. It’s doooooone!
~it turned out so much better than I could have imagined! I can’t believe how many photos were online, or how every single boat he was ever on has its own Wikipedia entry, or how there’s footage online of soldiers building the very Quonset huts he stayed in in Vanuatu. I stayed up till 1:30am last Saturday, feverishly putting in footnotes. It was just so interesting.
~it felt like I was working on a paper in university — except one that I WANTED to write, that I wanted to footnote and add photos to. I never felt like that in college, so it was wonderful to have something just pour out. I couldn’t stop! I learned so much researching everything he said, and I think the footnotes and maps really give a greater depth to the entire thing than just his words. Seeing all those different island groups in the Pacific that he went to really adds to the entire experience of living through his eyes. And seeing the photos of what it looked like when the Marines stormed Iwo Jima — knowing that that’s exactly what he saw… I mean, whoa. It was amazing.
~I’m so thankful and happy that Grandpa is alive to receive and read the document! Because he’s so old, even when I interviewed him I wondered if he’d be around by the time I got to typing it. Not only is he around, but he’s going to get it as a present for his 90th birthday — I can’t think of anything better. I think it’s the best present I ever could have gotten him. I know I keep hedging my bets and saying things like, “I hope he likes it”, because I don’t know how he’ll react. Maybe he’ll just be like, “Oh, okay. Thanks.” and not care. Or maybe he’ll look at it and be like, “That photo you put in is of the wrong kind of plane — I was in an Avenger, goddamn it.” Or even, “It’s too small print for me to read.” I can’t control his reaction (although I hope he enjoys it, so please tell me if he does).
But it’s the fact that it’s DONE and COMPLETED that makes it a present for myself. And a present for my entire family. I’m just so incredibly pleased. I want to show all of my friends! I forced my friend R. to look at it the other day, and I cant’t stop talking about it to [my boyfriend] and my housemate J. …
I think the fact that it’s so immediate is what strikes a chord. This is Grandpa, sitting in a chair in his room, recounting a story that people can listen to as they follow along and look at the maps. The fact that they can then go see him this weekend, or send him a postcard, or talk to him on the phone — it’s really cool, and it adds so much to the relationship. This kind of thing should have been done to more people in our family, but I’m SO proud that I got it all done for him.
I really think it’s one of the best things I’ve done so far, that and the Archives [my paternal side has a collection at a private research library]. (I wish [my uncle] were around to read it.) This is the kind of thing that will be passed down to the younger cousins as they get older. I love knowing that. And that it’s changed the way all of the aunts and uncles think about their father is amazing, too. Maybe I’ll see if the C. County library/historical society would want a copy.
Here is the email I sent out to my extended family, attaching the final 60-page document. (You’ll notice many people have the same initials — that’s because all nine of my aunts and uncles have names that start with ‘C’ and ‘K’!)
I am privileged to be emailing you today with a special document that has been years in the making. Back in 2011 when I was visiting [home], my grandfather, [redacted], agreed to sit down with me for a 1.5-hr-long video interview.
This document is his recounting of his entire WWII experience, from joining up to bombing Iwo Jima. It also includes an appendix with two essays I wrote a few years back about his wartime experiences and meeting my grandmother, and a letter he wrote her in 1945. Plus, it has over 30 maps and photos!
Video links (only those with the links can view the videos):
Many thanks go to CK, for her editing skills and photo scanning; CW and KW, for providing their video camera; CW, for getting the video files off CW’s computer for me; CW, KW, and CW, for comments and edits; and KW, for photo scanning. It was a group effort, and I’m so proud to have been involved.
I hope you enjoy this slice of family history as much as I did putting the whole thing together. Please feel free to print it out and pass it on to other family members — you can see I don’t have a lot of [his] siblings/nephews/nieces’ email addresses. CK will be giving it to him for his 90th birthday celebration this weekend.
Have fun reading it — it is truly fascinating! I hope it will become a family keepsake.
I had a lot of support from my aunts and uncles as I was preparing the document. Some of them got really, really into it, which gave me so much energy and enthusiasm:
Just went through the document with all the photos, maps, etc. AWESOME!!!!! I’m glad you could use so many of the photos I sent to you. They are wonderful.
Your personal reflection at the end was very moving and made me tear up, as well. You write so well!!!
I AM SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS!! It turned out so well and I think every one in our family is indebted to you for doing something we always wanted to do but never got done. Dad never seemed to want to talk about it much. Having it all on videotape is also something special. My daughter will cherish that someday. Her grandpa….
THANK YOU, THANK YOU THANK YOU.
YEAH!!! I’m so happy it turned out. -CK
After I sent it out, the messages came flooding in. People were amazed at how much he could remember:
Those videos are wonderful, Theresa! I haven’t watched the entire bit yet, but I love what I have watched. I cannot believe my father remembers some of the things he does. -CG
What amazed me the most was his memory. He had gone back to 1942 and those islands and those planes and those ships. I can hardly imagine what a 20 yr old would feel going through those experiences. Life changing. -CK
I think everyone will love it. The last 5 pages are great (the battle scene). It is amazing that he could remember some of those things with such clarity. I don’t remember what I did when I was 21 …..It just shows you how much of an impact going to war makes on a person. You never forget it. -CK
Some of my family were grateful he talked about his entire war experience, and plan to pass the document on to their children. Some of my aunts shared:
I want to thank you for your time and patience going through the data aand finding out all the details. Before this past summer, I had never heard my Dad talk about the war. When I asked, he would just say, “I don’t want to talk about it”, or “I don’t remember”. -KW
Dad might not be able to read the document [he has bad eyesight], but, I think this will mean more to Dad’s children and grandchildren (and so forth). He never went into as much detail when he told stories… a lot of the stuff he talked about on this tape I had never heard before. I NEVER knew he spent months on an island in Vanuatu, working on airplane engines. -CK
OMG! I had tears in my eyes as I printed out the document. I listened to the entire story and there was SO much about my father I did not know. And pictures. The one on page 6-he looks SO young. Thank you SO MUCH, Theresa for doing this. I will treasure this for a LONG time and then pass it on to my kids. -CG
I have already cried twice…at the reactions people are having when they read/hear about Grandpa. It means SO MUCH to all of us. It explains a lot of his behavior, too. It has changed me. I have to put it with my little collection of “books that changed my life.” -KW
He would tell me a story to two now and then but he never sat down and talked about the war in general. The photos help put a young face to those tales. I have so much more respect for his service now…and I can see why he often feels the way he does about things. -CK
Everyone loved it:
This is absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for putting it together. It was so wonderful to read and to watch! -JW
Thank You, Theresa for this lovely rendition of Dad’s Navy experience! It was so fun to read! -KW
I am so proud of you for doing this wonderful history for your grandfather and family. This is an important family story and also important to the history of WWII. The description of how things happened is so valuable to those who don’t know about WWII. -RW
What a wonderful gift you have given all of us with the publishing of the “book” on Grandpa!!!!! It will be cherished by everyone in the family. How can we thank you? Is there some way that would be especially meaningful? (outside of giving you a million dollars!!) -KW
What a beautiful thing you have done. I printed out the entire booklet and am delighted to have it! It makes me sorry that I didn’t do the same thing for Grandpa Hartman who was in the navy in WWI and who was on one of the destroyers that accompanied Wilson to France to sign the treaty to end the war. Unfortunately his memories died with him. Once again, how fabulous! I’m so proud of [my sister]‘s family!!!! -AH, my great-aunt
*record scratch* Wait — what? My great-grandfather travelled with the convoy escorting President Woodrow Wilson across the Atlantic so he could sign the Treaty of Versailles?!?
Looks like I might have to make another family history book…