When my major professor and mentor from graduate-school days retired, he actually retired. He spent the rest of his years reading all the novels Zane Grey ever wrote and becoming a pretty good country-jazz guitarist.
What he didn’t do was history. No more research. No more writing. He was done.
When I retired last year, I set my sights on something similar. I had a stack of spy novels waiting to be read or re-read — one of the good things about my declining memory is that shortly after I read one, I cannot recall the outcome. Once I tried to figure out who-done-it. Now I cannot remember who-done-it. Therefore, I can read them again with just as much pleasure.
I also considered trying to reclaim my long, lost guitar skills, but after sitting around playing with my buddy Clark, who knows a note or two, I realized that long, lost should stay long, lost.
“Atta boy, Hardy. That sounded like a D,” is damning with faint praise.
As for not doing history, that didn’t last very long, either.
Now, as my intensely ambivalent readers know, my bride and I over the last few months have been cleaning out and downsizing. A lot got thrown away. However, among the stuff we kept were my father’s military records.
Daddy was among the first drafted when the United States entered World War II. He was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, to be trained as a cavalry officer.
Then he was sent to the East Coast where, on Dec. 21, 1944, he sailed away to the sound of the guns.
Five days earlier, the Germans had attempted to break through the American lines and the Battle of the Bulge had begun. That was where Daddy was heading.
Talk about timing.
I know what followed because among Daddy’s papers was a small writing tablet on which he recorded “Important Dates & Events.”
I knew it was there because he showed it to me back when I was in high school.
Not long after that, he stopped talking about the war.
I am not sure why he went silent. Maybe I stopped asking questions. Or maybe seeing me at draft age and with Vietnam heating up, he did not want to think about me going into combat. Or maybe I am just putting words in his mouth, thoughts in his head, turning my concerns into his.
All I know is that only once did he talk of it again. It was when I showed my son, who was about 12, some of the things Daddy brought back from Germany. In discussing them, Daddy told some of the stories he told me when I was about that same age.
Finding Daddy’s “diary” gave me a framework on which to hang those stories.
Then I remembered that among Mama’s papers were the letters she wrote Daddy when he was overseas.
Also among her papers are the V-Mails that he sent to her.
I could take that correspondence, integrate it with the “Important Dates & Events” that Daddy recorded, flesh out what I have found in written accounts of the war in Europe and especially the Battle of the Bulge, and I could ... write history.
There I go, doing what I said I would not do. Instead of retiring with spy novels and guitar picking, I can’t help myself. I have got to see what I will find when I put it all together.
I may have retired, but I am still a historian. Can’t help it.
Now, I know the exercise I am about to undertake is one I should have undertaken long ago. I should have done this when Daddy was still around and I could ask him why the events and dates were “important.” I would love to know more about Ma-Maw and Pap-pa Jocoby, the Belgium couple who took Daddy and some others into their house, gave them gloves and earmuffs lined with rabbit fur and fed them potato soup. I would love to ask him about the slave-labor camp they “liberated.” Daddy never said a word about it.
Things like that make me miss him even more.
But on the other hand, going through the papers he and Mama left brings them back, if only for a moment. If I had done years ago what I am doing now, I would have denied myself the pleasure of knowing them again, knowing them when they were young and hopeful and scared and doing what they had to do.
My father never liked being designated part of the “Greatest Generation.”
Well, I never thought I would say this, but my daddy was wrong.
Like any historian worth his salt, I’ve got the records to prove it.