A somber toast for the coming year (again)

GREG BEAN

This column first appeared Jan. 4, 2006. I think it’s as appropriate today as it was then. Things haven’t gotten much better in the last year, and there’s no clear end in sight. I hope you’ll pardon the repetition, but I plan to run it every new year until our troops come home. On a positive note, ourmiddle son, who has been deployed in Iraq since last summer on his second tour, showed up at our home unannounced two days before Christmas, just like in a movie. We spent the holiday together as a family, mindful that there are many military families who weren’t. Who says there are no miracles? • • • When the United States entered World War II in 1941, my maternal grandfather, who was born in a homesteader’s sod hut in 1907 – was 34 years old.

He had grown up a cowboy, ridden rodeo as a young man and taught in a one-room schoolhouse before he married my grandmother, a young woman from a big family who lived on the next homestead over. Life was hard with six brothers competing for themeager profits of their small herd of cattle, so he took his bride and growing family to the nearest town, where he went to work at J.C. Penney’s.

At that time, a job with J.C. Penney was about the best shot at a big-town future a man with only a high school diploma and some experience punching cows could expect. John Cash Penney had opened his first store, then called the Golden Rule, in Kemmerer, Wyo., in 1902. When he changed the name to the J.C. Penney Co. in 1913, therewere fewer than 30 stores in the chain. By the time my grandfather went to work for him in 1935, the company had grown to more than 1,400 stores, but Mr. Penney was still a familiar figure and knew most of his store managers by name. By 1941, my grandfather had been promoted to assistant store manager, and there was talk of moving him to a larger regional store.

So it came as something of a surprise when he informed his boss, my grandmother, and his two children that he was going to join the Army and go to war.

It wasn’t as easy getting in as he had expected. For one thing, most of the men rushing to join the military at the start of World War II were in their late teens or early 20s. At 34, my grandfather was considered an old man, and at first, they told him to go away.

According to family legend, grandpa stood firm, demanded his enlistment papers.

“Besides the wisdomof age, what do you have to offer the Army?” the enlistment officer asked.

“I can shoot,” he said. “I’ve had a rifle in my hands since I was 8.”

“Show me,” the officer said.

So grandpa showed him, and that’s how he wound up a gunnery instructor at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Baltimore, Md., training young recruits how to fire a rifle, and kill what they were aiming at.As D-Day approached in late May and early June 1944, he was a 37-year-old sergeant in a platoon of infantrymen slated to be among the first wave of soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. Then fate intervened.

Less than a week before the invasion, my grandfather became ill and was sent to the infirmary, where he stayed until late June. By then, the invasion had been launched, and every member of the squad of men he had led before the invasion had been killed. I think the fact that he survived the war when somany of the youngmen he would have been responsible for on D-Day were slaughtered was a source of great conflict for him throughout the rest of his life. On the one hand, he came home safely to a loving family and lived a good life. On the other hand, he suffered what we now call survivor’s guilt. And although he remembered those young men every day and honored themin his way, they seemed to figure even more prominently in his thoughts as each new year approached.

On New Year’s Day, it was his ritual to go to his favorite place on earth – a promontory in the Big Horn Mountains overlooking the Powder River Basin- and fulfill a promise he and his men had made to each other in the months before D-Day. After the war, they vowed, they would all meet again and share a good cigar and a bottle of scotch to celebrate victory.

Because they were not there to keep the promise, he kept it for them. He was not a cigar smoker, nor a scotch drinker, but as every new year came, he sat on that promontory and smoked a fat cigar, sipped a little scotch and prayed for the souls of his friends and the lives of every otherman and woman serving in the armed forces.

The year he died, America was deeply embroiled in Vietnam, and early in that newyear,my father- also a veteran- and I drove up the mountain where I had my first cigar andmy first taste of scotch in our effort to keep grandfather’s tradition alive. We did it a couple of times afterward, but I’m sorry to say I’ve been lax for many, many years.

This year, however, with somanyAmerican men and women fighting in the Middle East, with so many killed and grievously wounded since our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, I think it’s time to revive my grandfather’s salute, although somewhat belatedly.

This week, I’ll sip a scotch and smoke a cigar- not only in honor of the people who have died serving our country throughout its bloody history – but for the men and women serving now.And even if you choose to leave out the scotch and cigars, I hope you’ll create your own version of my observance.

It’s been almost six years since this war began- longer thanAmerica was involved in World War II. Each day, the list of casualties and fatalities grows, and each day we become a bitmore accustomed to that awful reality, a bit more disassociated from the real sacrifices beingmade on our behalf.We simply cannot allow that to happen, to become inured to the dangers and costs of war, to neglect the memory and forget the sacrifices of others.

Joinme, then, inmy annual toast to the men and women of our nation’s military who have volunteered to place themselves in harm’s way. To those killed or injured, we promise to hold you in our memories, our hearts and prayers.And to the rest, thanks, God speed andmay you return home safely in the coming year.

Slainte!

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.