Monday, May 30, 2011

They Called him Pappy

I called him grampy.

My memories of him are few, but very vivid. I remember his chiseled face topped with serious heavy eyebrows. I can remember sitting under the shady purple maple on his front lawn, me in his lap in an aluminum lawn chair watching what would be some sort of construction on my future home happening directly across the street. We could look behind us and if we craned our necks left we could also watch the smoke stacks from the mill where he worked as a pipe fitter. I remember he smelled of faint cigarette smoke. While he didn't ever say too much to me, at least that I can recall, I remember someone (I think my mother) saying I was the apple of his eye.

I also remember the day he died. I remember grabbing my books off the sticky bus seat and getting ready for my stop but suddenly hearing the high pitched voice of Priscilla LeBrun, a neighbor who lived on the street prior to mine, walking up onto the bus and calling my name. Then my brother Kirk's. She said we needed to get off the bus here. She didn't say why, but I had an idea. My grandfather's lung cancer had spread in the weeks earlier. I remember the sores that had developed on his thinning face. I remember feeling so scared for him, not because of the look on his always brave face, but because of the looks on the faces of others as they came and left his bedside. I remember how painfully long and anxious the stay felt at our neighbors until they were able to put his tiny body into the back of the hearse and take him away before my brother and I were allowed to come back home.

I also remember walking up to his casket at his wake. My mom encouraged my brother and I to go up with her when there was a lull in the lines. She whispered that it was OK if I wanted to touch his hand as she reached out to do the same. I remember feeling that familiar nervous flush flash into my face, hot. It was like she was reading my mind. A curious enough child, I lacked all confidence to verbalize my innermost thoughts on most days. But standing here and watching her reach out to touch her father's hand, I wanted to do the same. I wanted to feel what death had done to Grampy.

And so one of the final memories with my grampy is my hand mimicking my mother's, reaching out to lay on his grey crepe-wrapped cold knuckles that were folded perfectly still on his belly.

My grandfather was known to many as Pappy. Staff Sergeant Kenneth A. Sanders was very young when he served in the army infantry and fought in what is known as the single most bloodiest battle fought on foreign soil. Yet he was the oldest among his men, and so they nicknamed him Pappy.

This morning I am reminding my kids for the millionth time to brush teeth and to get dressed so we can ride to Rochester to see the Memorial Day parade with friends. It's become important to me. We're getting ready to watch the wreath and carnations fall into the waters below the memorial bridge and to clap as the wheelchairs filled with the few remaining vets from our area are pushed by. My daughter is already scared about the volume of noise from the anticipated gun salute as taps plays out.

I am thinking about Pappy Sanders as I always do on these particular days dedicated to our heroes.

Beside my cup of coffee sits his his Bronze Medal case, black with gold lettering. My Uncle Kenny shared it with me and and I am so grateful he's entrusted a piece of our important family history with me. It opens lengthwise to a buttery gold velvety lining. Just under the Bronze Star Medal which says "Efficiency, Honor, Fidelity" is a folded letter type written on communion wafer-thin paper. It says this:

Headquarters 89th Infantry Division
APO 89, US Army

CITATION FOR BRONZE STAR MEDAL

Staff Sergeant KENNETH A SANDERS (then Sergeant) 31281973, Infantry, United States Army, distinguished himself by heroic achievement in connection with military operations against an armed enemy as assistant squad leader, Company "I", 353d Infantry, on 5 April 1945 near Forha, Germany. After his platoon leader advanced alone into enemy territory to rescue a wounded man and was wounded himself, Staff Sergeant SANDERS with complete disregard for his personal safety, crawled under severe small arms fire to the exposed position where is platoon leader lay, he administered first aid, still under fire, and then carried him 150 yards back to safety. Improvising a litter, he enlisted the aid of four comrades and carried the wounded leader two miles over rough terrain to the battalion aid station. His courage, initiative, determination and devotion to duty saved the life of his platoon leader and was in keeping with the best traditions of the armed forces of the United States.

Thank you, grampy, for your brave service to our country. I love that I am cut from your brave cloth. I am lovingly remembering that faint smokey smell of your chest as I sat on your lawn chair with you. And I am so very proud to share a little bit of your story today.