My Pops, Joe, must’ve been a fun guy to know in college. He had his own big band, Joe Sweatt and his Collegiates. He
was known for pulling pranks on a rival college. He worked on the school newspaper. And he dated one of the feistiest girls on campus, later to become my grandmother, who was known around campus as “Cutie” by one and all (I’ve seen the inscriptions in her yearbook that prove it!), who once broke up with him and left school for a few months just because he didn’t take her to the school dance (in truth, he couldn’t afford the tickets and couldn’t bear to admit it– I told you she was a handful!). My grandmother has remembered fondly a secluded campus bench they liked to visit in the moonlight, if you know what I mean! And then, one semester shy of graduating, my Pops was drafted into the army.
He served in the 1st Infantry Division, a real GI Joe. While in the “staging area” in North Africa, he caught the disease that probably saved his life– malaria. Weakened by the malaria, and with a nearly-finished college degree setting him apart from many of his fellow soldiers, the army made my Pops a medic and pharmacist. So, as his unit traveled into Anzio, up through Italy, and through Europe into Germany, my Pops wasn’t on the front lines. I guess I should thank a mosquito!
Pops always had a great sense of humor, so most of the stories I heard from him were sort of funny– like the time, getting off the duckboats at Anzio, he, being a rather short man, immediately sank over his head into the water under the weight of his pack. Some taller soldier next to him grabbed him by the pack, pulled him up, and dragged him to where his feet could touch the ground. He also joked about how his height made him work doubly hard as a litter-bearer, carrying wounded men on stretchers back to the medical tent– if his partner was much taller than he, he’d have to hold the litter up very very high to keep it level! And, though I knew him when he was a grandfather sneaking Little Debbies, my Pops always had a sweet tooth. He was actually at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest when it was captured, and while he describes other men cutting priceless paintings out of their frames and sticking other valuables into their packs, my Pops was stuffing his pockets and pack with a stash of chocolate he had found! That’s where his priorities were! He did make it out with a beautiful green blown glass vase– I have no idea how he got it home intact, but it sits in the china cabinet in my Memaw’s house, amid all her carnival glass and Kewpie dolls. His one other prized piece of plunder was a discus from Mussolini’s personal athletic complex.
My Pops even used his sense of humor to entertain the other soldiers. Perhaps because he had a taste for show business, his younger brother Albert having acted in films like “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “Boys Town,” or maybe because of his big band experience, Pops and a friend routinely perfomed skits, Pops playing GI Joe, of course, for the other soldiers. He later got back into character to perform one of those skits at his 50th high school reunion!
I guess, more than anything, the fact that what I know of Pops’ service in the army, which must have been very difficult at times, is the funny stories says a lot about him. He wanted to make me smile. He didn’t want to burden me with the horrors he surely saw as a litter bearer and medic. He was just an optimistic kind of guy, whistling everywhere he went, and it wasn’t in his nature to dwell on unhappy things. I hope I take after him in that respect.
My Pops died almost three years ago, and I miss him all the time. I wish he had been there for my wedding, a month later, but I know he was there, even if I couldn’t see him and hug his neck. And on this Memorial Day, I’m missing him like always, thinking of him, and thankful for the service he and so many men have given to our country.