By Louise Ure
He’s been on my mind a great deal this week, this man I didn’t know well.
He was one of the soldiers we’ve been remembering this weekend. One of those turned inside out by war.
He died in the same year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, although when I think back now to 1968, it is Kennedy I think of more often.
I don’t have any pictures of him, but that’s not surprising. He wasn’t around much, and when a camera came out he was around less.
William Grant Ure was my father, and one of those soldiers who did not fall in war, but who nonetheless returned so damaged that he was unrecognizable to any who knew him before.
He was thirty-two years old and already a practicing physician when he married my mother in 1941. Sadly, the army wanted him that year, too. My parents boarded a train immediately after the wedding ceremony. He got off in Fresno to report for duty. My mother continued on to the honeymoon suite at the St. Francis hotel in San Francisco and spent the weekend by herself.
Of course the army needed doctors. But what did they do with this Ear, Nose and Throat specialist from the desert? This man who had single-handedly reversed the course of tuberculosis epidemics among American Indians in Arizona and New Mexico? They sent him to the Aleutian Islands to act as the only psychiatrist to 4000 desperate men on a barren, frigid rock for four long years.
He came home a changed man.
To his credit, he honored the marriage he’d entered into only hours before his departure. But that commitment came with conditions. He wanted nothing to do with life, with living, with family. He wanted to be left in peace. And he was.
They had five children in eight years and my mother raised us alone. He had his own set of rooms in the house, and only ate dinners with us three times a year – Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. I don’t remember him giving my mother a birthday present. We never took family vacations.
He was not unkind, just distant. Like a powerful, cold rain, you just had to learn to plan around him. When he walked into the backyard for a swim, you got out of the pool. If he came home from the office for lunch, you took your sandwich somewhere else. You didn’t go into his quarters without an invitation.
My mother tells me that he was a remarkable man in his youth. Tall, black-haired and confident, he played the ukulele and sang with a band on the radio. She said he had good friends and laughed easily.
By the time I knew him, he had settled for less.
Every night at ten o’clock he had a small steak he’d cooked to the consistency of shoe leather, a boiled potato, and a pitcher of gin flavored with only ice cubes. He’d ricochet off the hallway walls as he returned to bed.
I thought all families operated this way, and was stunned the first time I had a sleep over at my friend Mary Ellen’s house. Her father sat at the table with us! And he even passed me the bread! I didn’t know how to react.
Like Robert Kennedy, my father died in 1968, and like Robert Kennedy he was assassinated. Not by a lone gunman, but by all the malevolent powers of war and loneliness and grief that had piled up in his heart in 1941 and 1942 and 1943 and 1944 on those cold, dark islands. He was not much older than I am now.
My mother was at a PTA meeting that night with the youngest of us. My three elder siblings were off on dates, or a science project, or just hanging with friends. I was home alone with him.
I heard him choking, and got up and knocked on his door to see if he was okay. No answer.
God help me, without permission I didn’t go in.
He got his wish. He was left in peace.
I won’t ask for equally sad memories, dear Rati friends. Just tell me how you spent your Memorial Day Weekend, or who you were remembering this year.
Louise, I could not read this without tears. I just… have no words. The writing, here, as always: profound, heart wrenching, beautiful.
Thank you, Toni.
I hope you and your brood got some time off and had a fine weekend, my dear.
I agree with Toni on this one. There’s really nothing I can think to say. However, I also agree that this a very beautifully written, yet very emotional post.
Echoing Toni and R.J.Elegantly and beautifully written, Louise.You have touched me once again.
Nothing else to say, Louise, except that I cried.
I didn’t mean this to be such a sad blog post, my friends! We all carry little shards like this. They don’t define us, but they are part of us.
I remember them, certainly. But I don’t dwell on them.
Now come on. Tell me what you’ve been doing this weekend!
Louise, what a powerful, haunting story. I’m sure your father will have a place in the still quiet of my dreams, now. I feel well and truly blessed that those I know who serve or served in the military haven’t (yet) suffered for their service in the way it sounds like your father suffered for his.
Though a sad post, Louise makes a very good point. A sad memory is not all of who we are but only a small part. If we were to define ourselves by only the tragedies in our lives, what would even be the point of getting out of bed every day?
Weekend wise – I did a lot of writing, but of course made some time for the barbeques and things of that nature. Of course fighting my way through the tourist traffic of Cape Cod. Always Fun! >:\ Oh well, that’s what keeps our local economy going (for the summer anyways)
Tammy, what a sweet note! And I love the phrase “in the still quiet of my dreams.”
R.J., you’re one of the lucky ones! Those favored to live in a place that the rest of us want to visit. How nice. A Cape Cod holiday every day.
I often find, Louise, that the still place inside my mind in the dark of night is where some of my best thinking happens, and where some of my most special memories live.
As for the weekend, I was camping near the beach with my best friend in the world (a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force) and her family. What a blessing it was to have three days where the most important thing I had to worry about was how long to cook the steaks!
Hope everyone else had a wonderful weekend as well.
Louise, thank you for sharing your father’s story. I always remember my stepfather at Memorial Day. He was courageous and full of fun and life, and it was a great privilege to know him.
As for this weekend, I spent it working. Feh 😉
Tammy, here’s to you and beach picnics and Master Sergeants! It sounds like you found some quiet time even with the waves rolling in.
Sorry you had to work, Rae. I hope you had time for an adult beverage someplace in there, and that you had a moment for your stepfather’s memory.
My esteemed spouse’s father was an Army MD in the Aleutians at the same time your father served. He died young, about five years after the war. It’s not stretching far to say that strange cold campaign was a contributor.
Now our eldest grandson is in the Navy, doing duty on a warship that comes and goes from good to bad places. A mere 20 he is, and that’s distressingly young.
We’ll see him next week when the ship returns to home port.
Tom, I’ve never heard stories from other Army MDs in the Aleutians. Did your father-in-law ever talk about his time there? My father never did. I’d love to know more about what that did to him, although I suppose I saw what it did every day.
I’m sending love and high hopes for your grandson’s continued safety.
Louise,I marvel at the person you’ve become in the face of what you’ve come from . . .
Yesterday, I remembered my stepdad, father and godfather — soldiers all — wonderful men who survived their war but carried those memories until death.
I also spent time with my kids and husband, worked in the garden and got a bunch of editing done. I’m still trying to get the manuscript to my agent for comments by the end of this month . . .
Pari and Elaine … it truly wasn’t a bad upbringing, just different. But I’ll bet it had a lot to do with my decision not to have children!
I’m keeping good thoughts for the ms, Pari.
And Elaine, I hope you had a joyous long weekend up north!
Guess I should finish what I’d set out to say…but with my eyes all misty…words failed me..and still do.
Oh Louise, words fail me too. What an incredible story — though it’s terribly sad, what a gift you’ve given us today.
I just got back from Omaha — Mayhem in the Midlands was incredible. I highly recommend this conference.
And I’m remembering a sweet boy named Dave Sharrett, who we called The Bean. He died in Iraq a few months ago, only a couple of weeks into his first tour of duty. Thank you to all our brave boys and girls.
JT, I’ll be remembering Dave Sharrett today, too. Even one is one too many.
And Mayhem sounds like a great way to spend Memorial Day Weekend!
Though Cape Cod is a nice holiday place, it really isn’t all that spectacular when you live here year round. I will say this though, a good majority of it is very arts friendly, so that is a good thing.
The downside though is that it can be fairly dead in the winter months.
I know what you mean, R.J. Here in San Francisco we have less seasonality for tourism, but you’ll still see that odd t-shirt design every now and again: “If it’s tourist season, why can’t I shoot them?”
Traffic problems on the Cape? But they finished the the flyover! 🙂
I think your father might have been my uncle, only he served in Vietnam.
Stephen, I’ll bet every war would give us his doppelganger. I hope your uncle found peace somehow.
And what’s with the Cape flyover?
I’ve read this piece five or six times now and it breaks my heart every time.
Oh Louise, first off ditto to what everyone else has said, there’s really nothing else to add. I spent my Memorial Day weekend doing what I always do; hanging out and barbecuing (sp?) with friends (including, this year, the Salute to Veterans Air Show), and thinking about my Grandpa and Papa. Neither of them died during WWII — Grandpa was a tanker and career Army, Papa was a seabee — and I know Veteran’s Day was more applicable to them when they were still here, but I still can’t help but feel like it’s one of their days. It’s funny, they had such opposite reactions to war. Grandpa was always willing to talk about and tell stories (although I’m sure they were highly edited, and certainly we didn’t hear everything he went through) and was always proud of the shrapnel scars he bore. Papa just didn’t talk about it, aside from telling us about the time he and a few friends got in trouble for breaking into the officer’s mess supply and liberating a few steaks. I remember having an assignment my freshman or sophomore year of high school in which I was supposed to interview my grandparents, or any other people I knew who had lived through the depression and the war years that followed. Mom, who had always wanted Papa to open up more about his time with the Navy (I think the Seabees were Navy, or were they their own branch? I should know, but I don’t), told me that if we had any hope in hell of getting Papa to talk about it we would have to ply him with liqour. We did. It worked. For about three minutes. He didn’t get visibly upset, just shut himself down. Didn’t really say anything at all for the rest of the night. To this day I still feel guilty about trying to make him revisit/relive what was so obviously one of the worst times of his life — I feel like I deliberately hurt him by asking him about something I knew he didn’t want to share. He was back to his normal self the next day, but as they say, hindsight is always 20/20 and if I had it to do over, I think I would have just stuck with Grandma and Grandpa and Granny’s experiences.
JD, that’s what makes you such a good dad.
Katherine, that’s such a sad but important memory of your father. He found a way to wall off all those feelings, it seems. And even liquor couldn’t get through those defenses. I wonder who he was protecting more … you or himself?
Louise, I think it was quite possibly a mix of both. Papa isn’t my father, though. Prounounced like you’re saying Pa twice in a row — it’s what we called Mom’s father. He was a welder from Pittsburgh, and ended up in the South Pacific during WWII before coming back home and returning to the steel mills. As I said, we don’t really know much about his service, but after he died Mom did get some ribbons and a medal or two I think, that we didn’t know he had earned. Mom always said she thought Papa — who was a very devout Catholic — had been in a situation where he had to kill someone, and even if that someone was obviously the enemy, it never sat well with him. Clearly. And perhaps that’s the difference between Papa and Grandpa: Grandpa had gone to military school — didn’t actually finish because the war started — and was prepared to be in that situation and handle it, whereas Papa was not.
KC. Now I see. Papa as a maternal grandfather. We didn’t have such a sweet nickname in my family.
And he must have been a fine man, to have been troubled by taking a life. It’s the men who aren’t troubled that concern me the most.
Louise, I’ll have to ask Mary Lynn’s older sister about anything her dad said about the Aleutians. The next-to-last of that generation in her family died on Saturday.
Katherine C., the Seabees are a specialized branch of the US Navy. Their real name is Construction Battalion, abbreviated ‘CB.’ They have come in and out of existence several times since WWII. I believe they currently are part of the USN.
As you might have guessed, my father was one.
Thanks Tom 🙂 I actually went and looked it up after I had posted, because as I said, I felt like it was something I should have known. Found some interesting things, including the fact they’re working on a memorial, which I think is cool. Learned a little bit of the history behind the logo etc. Made me think they were even cooler than I already had, but of course, they had to have been if Papa and your dad were associated with them ;).
Ah, Louise! There’s nothing to add that hasn’t been said, but what an unusual childhood!
I spent the day thanking Lillian for her service in the Army, her brother, Curtis, who’s looking at his third Iraqi tour, and thinking about my mom, who spent World War II in England, mostly. I’m proud of all of them.
And gardening. We had beautiful weather, so we did some much needed yard work.
Thank you for sharing, Louise!
Tom and Katherine, thanks for all the Seabee memories. What a cadre of men they must have been!
And Fran, I love your day of sharing and gardening and memories. Here’s to Lillian and Curtis and all those who have given so much.