On the crest of a small hill in Agawam Cemetery is my father’s grave. He is surrounded by his father-in-law, his infant boy-child, and his wife. Down the hill rest more extended family members from my mother’s side of the family. At 92 his mind and its ability to regulate not only thoughts but biological systems gave up. On May 26, 2011, he gasped twice as I held his hand and then silently, gently slipped away on a spring breeze.
It had not been an easy life. Poverty punctuated his earliest years, as made obvious in a sepia-toned photograph. Dad is seated and appears to be a very fat and robust baby of about nine months. It is his clothing that betrays the chubby cherub. It looks like a handknitted jumpsuit with very tattered booties. Long untethered strings hang from the heels. The tilt of his head gives him a quizzical appearance, with pale blue eyes that are not so much questioning but observing people off-camera. The baby is not smiling, just waiting for whatever comes next. He would, for the rest of his life, hold that pose when studying others.
Dad was born June 2, 1918. The ravishes for a world war prevailed as did that other pandemic, the Spanish Flu. Yet despite all the pitfalls, his parents kept him living, fed, and spared all manner of child-killing diseases. He survived.
As a young child, school vexed him. Today he would be diagnosed with one or more learning or cognitive issues easily countermanded by programs and individual support. At that time, he was viewed as lazy, ignorant, not worth the effort, punishable, and eventually allowed to leave school in the third grade.
Dad always credited his maternal grandmother with teaching him how to read. And learn he did, at least well enough to enjoy the daily newspaper, technical journals, and most legal documents. But he could never really write more than his name with penmanship that was sorely lacking. He could add and subtract but not multiple or divide.
Motors of all sorts were his sweet spot. Car engines, radios, kitchen appliances and, later on, TVs were added to his repertoire. Through the magic of his mastery with car engines his vehicles were always in good working order. But much like the cobbler whose children have no shoes, our TVs were always the last to get his attention. If we could slap the side of the cabinet to get the vertical hold to work, that’s what we did for weeks.
From the moment he was old enough to put his hand to work, that is what Dad did almost until the day he died. But later in life he did allow himself the pleasure of a travel trailer. At least once a year he’d fill the tiny refrigerator with frozen TV dinners, and gather such provisions as a loaf of white bread, a jar of Maxwell House, and peanut butter and jelly. Then rounding up his son or, later on, a neighborhood rag-a-muffin or grandson, he’d head off for Moose Head Lake in Maine.
Once there with a small campfire glowing, he seemed to relax. I went with him once when my boy was about five. That experience, like several others we’d had together, allowed me to see my father in a different light. He was a lonely, secretive man.
One of his biggest secrets, maybe one he kept even from himself, was the post-war trauma he suffered through. My earliest memories of my father are of a man who never spoke, whose brow was furrowed as his eyes looked past you to some far-imagined horizon. He never seemed to be present.
In old age as his grasp on the present became adrift, as his thoughts were loosened from their moorings, he spoke of his wartime experiences. Not in a boastful victorious manner but in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone. “Them bullets sounded like ping, ping, ping,” he said aloud one afternoon while sitting at his kitchen table. As I sat beside him, Dad unfolded decades of quiet suffering so gently that the pain was not at first perceived.
Dad’s knack for fixing car engines had earned him a position in the motor pool of his Army unit. He became a driver for a high-ranking officer. They had seen direct combat as his unit advanced from Normandy following behind Patton.
At one point, Dad and the officer were pinned down, taking cover under their jeep. “It was cold and wet,” Dad remarked, “…we could hear the Germans talking.” They remained under that jeep for several days. One can only imagine the fear, a lasting, never-ending fear.
Dad talked about helping a farmer with his tractor, scavenging for coal along a railroad bed and building fires that warmed “the boys.” He had tremendous respect for the military but loathed military action. Throughout the Vietnam conflict, as he sat reading the daily newspaper, he’d shake his head and say, “…they should bring them boys home.”
His brother, a retired Naval officer a few years younger than Dad, would tell me decades later that he believed his only sibling had returned home from WWII with what we now call PTSD. Back then it was “battle fatigue.” As I think about that now, it seems very likely to be true. My uncle told me that Dad went to a hospital but how and where is now lost.
For his bravery Dad received a Bronze Star. His children never knew that until he was very old and then didn’t understand the significance of the medal. Today I weep for a man who spent his entire life working to provide for his family, never receiving recognition for a job done to the best of his abilities as a civilian and as a soldier until he was laid to rest on that crest of the hill. As he lay dying, I told him repeatedly, “You can stand down Dad, your work is done.” On the anniversary of his passing coupled with Memorial Day celebrations, my grieve opens raw as a fresh grave.
My parents’ graves are marked by footstones provided by the Veterans Administration. These humble markers befit their lives. There is comfort in knowing that, in the forever which follows death, my father’s grave denotes his heroism, his rising to the best that he could be when it was most needed – once upon a time. There on the crest of the hill in nearby Wareham lies a hero, my father, Brayton Norman Newell, June 2, 1918 – May 26, 2011, an anonymous citizen like so many others who helped make America what we dream about today.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell