My wife’s uncle, Jack Dean, died this week. He was born in 1926 and suffered at the end from the accumulating miseries of a long life. Decades earlier a heart attack in middle age led to circulatory problems that caused him to lose both legs. One wonders if today’s medicine might have saved them.
A little anecdote from the time tells you something about Jack and his brother, my wife’s father. Both were solid men of short stature and when her Dad first saw Uncle Jack in his new legs he asked why he hadn’t had them made longer so he could be tall for a change.
Once up and about (though still short), Jack beat the odds to carry on as usual for many years. Until the last year or so, despite ongoing circulatory and respiratory issues, he was in reasonably good shape for a man his age. Then he developed an unusual blood cancer and early this year the coup de grace, brain tumors.
They were inoperable and he was given only two months without treatment. Any intervention available would not change the outcome but might prolong his survival. No doubt as a result of his coming through other potentially life threatening experiences in his teens and forties, Jack opted to take whatever treatment was offered. Result? He lasted the same two months.
Throughout this ordeal lines from a very great, very bleak Robert Frost poem kept running through my head:
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
But it would be a shame if the hard end made us forget the great role of Jack’s life. His father was the first in his family to leave the farm for the town, but rural life was still close at hand. Jack used to talk about the misery of vacation days spent on his grandfather’s farm, forced to do the really hard labor of tobacco farming and to sleep in an unheated, uninsulated attic that on cold nights was frigid.
School and a working man’s house in town where his Dad was an automotive mechanic and his mother employed in a textile mill looked luxurious by comparison. But as soon as he was old enough to enlist, he did what his generation did in their millions, join up to fight in World War II. In his case, the service was the Navy and his assignment the engine room of the Fletcher-class Destroyer Irwin.
It was to be the great adventure of his life and all over by the time he was 20 in 1946. The action the ship saw is a roll call of the Pacific War – Saipan, the Marianas, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Battle of Leyte Gulf where Irwin won the Navy Unit Commendation for coming alongside the stricken light carrier Princeton despite exploding shells and fire to try to quench the flames. When a violent explosion occurred, Irwin rescued 646 men from the decks and the sea.
In early 1945 Jack was aboard for Iwo Jima and Okinawa as the Irwin braved attacks by planes, torpedo boats and kamikaze fighters. At war’s end, she was ferrying troops from Okinawa to Tokyo Bay to begin the occupation. Jack dismissed most of these heroics as just part of the job, but admitted there was a frightening couple of days when the ship was caught in a typhoon and had to ride it out.
For many years thereafter, Uncle Jack looked forward to the periodic reunions of his fellow crewmen. They took him across America to meetings in Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis until finally he stopped attending because the World War II vets had dwindled to so few that the Korean War vets had come to dominate the reunions.
In civilian life, Uncle Jack was a quiet, genial man. Friends and relations could recall no instance of his saying a harsh word about anyone. Perhaps he had seen enough of man’s inhumanity to man to last a lifetime.
When the war ended, there were a little over 15 million veterans of the great conflict. The years have taken them at an accelerating pace. A little over a year ago the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that there were 1,400,000 left, less than ten percent. Around 600 a day, 200,000 a year, are now dying. And this week, now that Uncle Jack has been added to the roll, there is one less member of the Irwin’s crew still with us.