birth and war – a day to remember

(I posted this last year. It’s still true.)

It would have been his birthday today, my grandfather. For three years, I lived just one small town away, and I suspect – based on all I know of him – that for those three years, I spent much of my life draped comfortably over his arm (where babies were most content), held gently on his lap (where toddlers were most relaxed), or settled happily alongside him at ‘work’ (where children were most eager to be).

When my family plucked itself up from the Nebraska soil and migrated east to the suburban cement, the distance between me and my grandfather might as well have been from here to the moon. Holiday and summer visits, whether 10 hours in a stuffy car or 14 hours on the click-clacking Zephyr, were much too far apart. A child can’t possibly wait a whole year to see again that tall figure, measured gait, broad grin, and leathery hands, all carefully sheltered from the glaring sun by a hat that set my grandfather apart from all other grandfathers in my suburban desert. Cowboy. Farmer. Man of the land. That he was. I was proud he was mine.

Photo: CKIrgiss – ‘Working’ with Grandpa

In the 1940s, while my grandfather was working the land (to feed the people), his brother – a United States Lieutenant Colonel – was stationed in Europe (to free the people). I knew this brother, my great-uncle, but not well. He looked like my grandfather. Smiled like him. Spoke like him. Strangers could have pegged them for brothers with nothing more than a passing glance.

A long while ago, I was back at the farm for my grandfather’s funeral … the man I’d always lived too far away from and missed too much. In search of a quiet, alone, crying place, I climbed the creaking stairs of a battered shed into the upper storage rafters that were empty but for some stacks of crumbling newspapers, piles of rotting rags, and a neatly bundled, carefully saved packet of handwritten letters. Real letters. From my great-uncle to his parents during World War II … people he was too far away from and missed too much.

For the next two hours, while I cried for the grandfather I’d lost, I read those letters. All of them. Every word. And then I cried for this other man, who I’d never known well enough, who’d lived through hell on earth, and who’d been much too far away from the place he loved and the people he adored. I was sad for all he’d lost, all he’d seen, all he’d experienced, all he’d known. Sad that I’d never thought to thank him for what he’d done. Sad that I’d never realized my great-uncle was set apart from so many other great-uncles across the land. Soldier. Veteran. Defender of freedom. That he was. I am proud he was mine.

Photo: CKirgiss

Nebraskan I am (or: how I navigated the Cornhusker-Boilermaker football game)

For only the second time ever, Nebraska and Purdue met today on the football field.

The first time was in 1958. Purdue shut out Nebraska 28 – 0.

Purdue vs. Nebraska, 1958 (from the Purdue Special Archives)
Purdue vs. Nebraska, 1958

That was then. This is now.

In case you hadn’t heard, Purdue is not currently a football powerhouse. They have been in the past. They might be in the future. But right now they are a team with a lot of hard work in front of them in order to be taken seriously as a Division I contender.

That’s okay with me.

I’ve been a Boilermaker for 8 years now. I have several Boilermaker degrees. I have Boilermaker offspring. I have Boilermaker friends. I have Boilermaker colleagues. I have Boilermaker gear. I tend to be a faithful fan, especially when it comes to football. So I can be patient and gracious while this Boilermaker football team works hard to rebuild itself.

In other words, I’m a genuine Boilermaker fan.

But there is this: I am also a 4th-generation Nebraskan. 5th if you count all those Wendell boys and Pearson girls who arrived long ago from Sweden and then decided that the difficulties often associated with extended families could be avoided if the three Wendell brothers each married one of the three Pearson sisters. It was so entirely practical. (And, one hopes, eminently romantic.)

So though I am at present a Boilermaker, I was first born a Nebraskan. And when someone is born a Nebraskan, it doesn’t matter if they live in the state for 3 years, 30 years, or until their last breath. They are in some inexplicable way a Nebraskan through and through.

So though I own lots of Black and Gold gear, I wore red to today’s football game and felt neither out of place nor traitorous. It would have been impossible to feel out of place – even in the home-seating sections – because there was red everywhere I looked. It would have been impossible to feel traitorous – even when cheering loudly for Nebraska – because I didn’t wish any ill-will on the Boilermakers. In fact, I cheered loudly for both teams – even though there wasn’t anything like an equitable distribution of cheering moments between the two teams.

At the next Boilermaker home game, I will be wearing black and gold. Proudly. Even if the team struggles with growth-and-development pains. Even if the team doesn’t win. Even if the team stumbles and falls on its way towards what I hope will be excellent awesomeness. 

But at the next Nebraska-Purdue game, I will be wearing red. In Lincoln. Along with pretty much everyone else. Because no matter how long I live in West Lafayette, or how many degrees my family accrues at Purdue, or how deeply my Boilermaker friendships run, or how often I don Black and Gold for various competitions, underneath it all there is still something about Nebraska that runs very, very deep. It can’t be explained. It just is. 

And that’s very okay with me.