|Wm. Bruce Gulley (1921-2013)|
The Greatest Generation is down a man, as of five o'clock Eastern Standard Time this morning.
When he drove an LST in the Southeast Asian theater, he followed up the beach, rifle in hand, with the last of the troops to be delivered. When I turned thirteen, and my friends and I were playing "war," we had a talk that forever changed my attitudes toward it. Since then, it has always seemed that the only ones who think war is a good idea are those who’ve never fought one.
Later, during a Veteran's Day phone call, he was in a mood to talk about the differences his generation and ours faced in returning home. He expressed great sympathy for young men and women who were in a firefight one day, and the next were sitting at their family's dining table. His long journey home involved weeks of time with others who had seen what he had seen, talking through what that meant to them, and what it could never possibly mean to those awaiting them at home. As much as I try, I know how inadequate my counsel is to my friends who have dealt with PTSD, and that I occasionally forget to say Thank You clearly enough to those who have served. But I also know my uncle was glad to know I tried.
Other than one long talk, and several brief mentions, I have no idea of so much that he experienced. But the long-term effects included loyalty, self-sacrifice, and a willingness to accommodate behaviors that many would find entirely unacceptable (though not entirely without comment or even complaint at times).
For all that I remember that he taught me, I’m sure there are many more I still know, but simply never noticed that he was teaching me at the time. I can whittle a top, or a birch-whistle. I remember the multi-part lesson working in a muddy foundation on Peterson Place. (Until the third part of the lesson, each step in the process was preceded by either my butt or my stocking-encased foot becoming submerged in the mire. For your edification: twist your foot inside the boot as you lift your foot slowly, bringing the boot and the foot together out of the mud, while keeping your knees bent for balance. But don’t tell the kid all that at once; it would spoil the fun of watching him sit or step bootless into the mud.) Oh yeah, I also know not to use a keyhole saw to put windows into the house we made out of a refrigerator’s shipping box (at least not while my sister was inside).
I also know that when someone asks me to believe their words, and their actions don’t match—to believe what they do, not what they say. If I were to tell someone I’ll be there tomorrow, and I’m not—I know that it’s just as much a lie as if I’d told them I was there yesterday and wasn’t. And when you’re feeding even an early-adolescent tagging along from the job-site (that would be me), a smorgasbord is a safer place to take them than anywhere you’d have to pay for all that food they eat.
There’s probably much more I never noticed I was learning. And in ways simple and complex, I can only hope I communicated clearly in words and actions alike: I love you, Uncle Bruce. Thanks for everything.
Those of us who share in the heritage he leaves bear an unmistakable obligation to pass the legacy on to those who follow. Those who never had the privilege of knowing him...well, I pray that you see just some glimmer of him in those of us who did. It would be a blessing to you to see it; it would be a blessing to him to know it was seen.