Overdue Thanks

Thank you. I probably say those words 10 times a day. People hold a door for me, I thank them. People let me into traffic, I give them the old thank you wave. Funny thing is, I’ve never said thank you to my 80-year-old grand uncle who I probably owe as much thanks to as anyone.

Last week I went to Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s horrifyingly realistic (according to WWII veterans) account of World War II. I saw a man, his arm blown off just below his shoulder, searching the ground before reaching down and picking up the rest of his limb and carrying it away with him.

This column is not meant to be a rewrite of the Star Spangled Banner or me genuflecting at the altar of Steven Spielberg. After all, it’s only a movie, right? But it’s based on reality, which is what left me staring at the screen while the credits rolled, wondering what the hell it must have been like to live this, and perhaps worse, what it’s like to live with the memory of it. Most of all, I was angry at myself for not realizing sooner what these young men went through so that some kid could come along 30 years later and live the blessed life he has.

My mother’s uncle, John Hogan, served as a Marine in WWII for more than two years. He fought in the Marshall Islands and was shot in Saipan in 1944 by a Japanese sniper. He tells stories of his days in the war, but only if you ask. He was known to his fellow Marines as Hogie and His Goat. One night, holed up in a fox hole, he grabbed a goat that was wandering nearby and held it next to him all night long. His thinking was that goats have better hearing than humans. Whichever direction the goat seemed to hear a noise, he fired.

Last Christmas Eve, I sat and listened to him tell the story of the day he was shot in Saipan, two hours before his company was to leave the area. I heard the pain in his voice when this man with a razor sharp memory couldn’t recall the name of a friend, who was killed in battle. “Isn’t that something, he said, obviously disappointed, “I can’t remember his name.”

My grand uncle is not a complicated man. He was a postal worker for more than 30 years when he came back from the war. He still plays golf every day and drinks his beer chasing a shot of whiskey. At the age of 80, he’s still the funniest guy in the family (which, incidentally, says something about the sense of humor the rest of us were blessed with). I just shake my head at the fact that he thinks nothing of blurting out politically incorrect names for the Japanese he fought during the telling of his war stories.

But it came to me, while watching this movie, the thoughts that must be ingrained in a man who was nearly killed by a Japanese sniper. It also hit me that a twenty-something kid who knows nothing about war will never understand what he went through. The only thing I can ever do is thank him, and that’s probably not enough.

The worst part about watching “Saving Private Ryan” was that it made me feel like a Generation X punk who never took the time to say thank you to someone I could have and should have thanked a thousand times.