for veteran’s day: the veteran i’ve never met

I shared this story last year, and thought I’d share it again this year. Every time I look at the painting hanging over my piano, I think of the veteran I’ve never met:

Today, 11/11/11, is Veteran’s Day. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a pacifist, and as a result, Veteran’s Day is a bit problematic for me. I sometimes find the language surrounding it disturbing, and I’m leery of ever praising violence. I’m also leery of saying certain conflicts are about protecting “our” rights and freedoms when they really have nothing to do with our rights and freedoms at all, as is the case in our more recent wars and conflicts. Still, I have family currently serving in the military, and, like most Americans, I have a long family history of people serving in the military, and I am thankful for the sacrifices men and women in the armed forces make for our nation. I know we as a nation don’t take as good of care of our Veterans as we should, and I pray that we can do better. I also pray for a day when no one will need to take up arms in service of our nation.

That said, today, I wanted to write about a particular veteran. One I’ve never met.

My Great Uncle Albert, my father’s father’s brother, is something of a family legend. I’ve heard about him and my Pops growing up in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, where their mother ran a boarding house in the height of the town’s “Sin City” days. Mobsters, including Al Capone, spent time there, and the Milwaukee Brewers spent their spring training there. I’ve heard about how a mobster once saw them playing baseball with a stick, and bought them brand new bats with their names engraved on them. Another time, a Milwaukee Brewers player saw that they lacked a proper baseball and bought them an entire case of balls.

My Pops and Uncle Albert sold homemade newspapers to earn money to go to the movies. Then somehow, this boy from Arkansas found his way into some major Hollywood pictures himself. He appeared, uncredited, as a child actor in “Boys Town,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “A Star is Born,” “Tom Sawyer,” and “Nothing Sacred.” As a teenager, he lied about his age in order to join the Air Force and serve in World War II. He became a tail gunner, and he served until he was shot down in England, where he is buried.

After his death, his mother received a collection of his paintings from his painting teacher. She never even knew he was a painter.

I wish I could have known him. I’m sure he was a riot, and full of stories. Instead, I have stories others tell about him, and I have one of his paintings:

The man in this painting was my Great Uncle Albert's painting teacher.

I know Veteran’s Day is supposed to be for the living, and Memorial Day for the dead, but I wanted to share my Great Uncle today. Thank you to all Veterans. I look forward to a future where actors and painters can be actors and painters, not soldiers.

memaw!

A woman gambles in Hot Springs, AR. My hometown. Image via the Google Life Photo Archive, under a Creative Commons license.

I just happened to remember this little anecdote, and it made me smile, so I thought I’d share.

I’m from Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Once the Prohibition-era hangout for mobsters and gamblers and jazz musicians and even the Milwaukee Brewers, who held their spring training there (I’ve heard about all of this from my Grandfather, who grew up there), it still remains something of a sin city.  Heralding itself as America’s first resort town, it draws tourists to its beautiful lakes, and, more commonly, to the horse racing track, which was, until recently, one of only two places where gambling was legal in the state of Arkansas.  There are other “sinful” aspects too– I remember making a video about my home town with classmates in Jr. High, as we were going on a trip to Washington D.C. with students from other states and would be expected to share about our home with the others.  The kids from a Native American Reservation in Wisconsin taught us a traditional dance. We talked about Bill Clinton and showed a video.  We were less cool than the Menominee kids.  Anyway, part of our video was shot from the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, and when asked what that “Playmates” place was, we got red faced and stammered, “Uh, a daycare! Yeah, a daycare!”

All of this is just preface to say, one time, we were driving home in the car with my Memaw, who, though she isn’t from Hot Springs, spent time there in her college years as she coached women’s basketball in a nearby town.  As we drove past a strip club, Memaw said, “I used to dance there!”

WHAT?!

“Memaw, that’s a strip joint!”

And in her Southern drawl, the one that comes out of my mouth, too, when I’ve spent too much time around her, or when I’m particularly tired or angry, she said, “Way-uhl, it wasn’t back then! It was a club where I useta jitterbug!”

Whew. Sigh of relief. My grandmother does NOT have a stripper past.