My father was a member of that extraordinary club they later dubbed "the greatest generation," so named because they dragged the nation out of the depression, defeated the Nazis, and then built a prosperous post-war America that just happened to have been an awfully nice place in which to be raised for a kid like me.
I think that they probably were the greatest, at that. I mean, I can't speak for everyone born in these United States between the years 1901 to 1924, but I can say with certainty that my own father, the subject of so many of these stories, was undoubtedly the greatest.
He could sing like Bing Crosby, joke like Bob Hope. He could strum a guitar, and play the harmonica with the best of them. He was a teacher, which served him well as a church leader, scoutmaster, tutor - he taught me and my brother and sister how to shoot, and all of us can still find the target now that we're in our collective dotage. He could tie any knot in the scout handbook. Hell, he was an Eagle Scout. He loved to cook, and at any campfire, he was always the best cook in camp.
Consequently, I remember him as a giant even though he was a modest five foot ten inches tall. He was a very strong man, capable of the work of two or three normal men even into his middle age.
My father was just a young man of 23 when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the war to America. He was born in Canada to American parents near Magrath, Alberta. When he came of age, he was forced to give up his dual citizenship; he decided he would find more "opportunity" in the USA and emigrated. As he told it, he was almost immediately drafted into the US Army along with most of his new buddies in the Lewistown area.
Dad found himself a master mechanic in Patton's Western Task Force, the 7th army, comprised of some 33,000 men and more than 100 ships. After boot camp, in the summer and fall of 1942, they were sent to North Africa to oppose General Rommel, the notorious "Desert Fox." Landing in Morocco and pushing Eastward through North Africa into Algeria, and Tunisia, the Allies' goal was to protect the Suez Canal. Summer of 1943 found dad in Sicily. Still assigned to Patton's Army, and with the British General Montgomery, the allies quickly took Sicily. In late summer of 1943 the army was moved into Italy, and ultimately into France. In January 1944 Patton was given command of the US Third Army for the Normandy invasion. Shortly after the invasion, dad and most of the men from Lewistown were transferred from the 7th army to the 3rd army in France. By then the GIs had taken to calling Patton "old blood and guts."
Dad told me once that he got mighty close to the General on two occasions. The first was when he and his assigned crew were repairing a tank that had thrown a track, and the tank was just barely off the road. He was notified to look alive! The General's entourage was proceeding north along the same road. The General went by, standing up in his half-track, saluting the troops. Dad said he stood at attention and saluted back. He remembered being honored by the event. He told me that he considered a major part of the reason we were a free people in the United States was because of General George S. Patton.
The second time was when he was called by his commanding officer to repair a VIP Jeep that had developed a miss in the engine. When dad saw the vehicle, he noticed that it had a Star on the door. An officer told Dad to "fix it, and fix it right the first time, son. This here Jeep is the General's."
Dad fought in the Battle of the Bulge, from December of 1944 until Jan 1945, considered the turning point for the Allies. One time while nearing Belgium, his convoy roared into a camp of GIs, and they were eating their rations cold. My dad asked why. They complained that their army-issued Coleman stoves would not keep a flame. Dad was a camper, and he could fix anything. He had the whole regiments Coleman stoves working in tip-top shape in just a few hours. But he didn't just fix them, he taught them how to do it themselves next time they got fouled.
By March 1945, Patton had crossed the Rhine was quickly fanning out in Germany. In May of 1945, the Nazis surrendered. Dad went on to spend time in Luxembourg, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, no longer repairing tanks and cars, but working mostly in big freight trucks used in the post-war mop-up and general confusion as the iron curtain began to fall. They brought the third army home in 1947, but Dad was discharged in 1946.
Dad never talked much of those times. He preferred to live his life in the more pleasant presence of his wonderful wife and kids, as he would say. He had seen Europe and Africa splashed in blood and fire, had witnessed human suffering on a previously unimaginable scale, and he didn't want to talk about it.
When I was 12 or 13, drunk on Sgt. Rock comics and episodes of Combat!, my head full of nonsense about the glories of war, I asked if he had ever killed a man. He turned away from me and busied himself at the sink, but I could tell by the way his shoulders rose and fell that he was crying. I had never seen that mountain of a man cry before, and I felt terrible. He never told me the answer, but I think it's safe to infer that it was "yes."
I do not ever remember a time that there was not a gun in the rear window of my dad's pickup. It seemed to me that the truck could have come equipped with a gun rack, and maybe even the gun came standard. I figured every car had a gun in the back.
I also never remember my dad ever locking his truck. In fact, did, the trucks of the early 50s even have door locks? I guess I'm really not sure.
My dad's truck! Point of fact, my boys and I have inherited his '66 Jeep J3000 Gladiator. Back then, they were trucks driven by men with blue collars and calluses on their hands, men who worked for a living, who wore boots, and coveralls. They had no power steering, no power brakes, no electric windows, no radio, just pure, get up and go.
A lot like Dad himself. Simple, powerful, no frills, but who needs frills? The man was as reliable as the rising and falling of the sun and moon.
Looking back now, I realize how blessed we were to have had such a wonderful father.
No matter how I try to compare myself to him, I find that I fall short, in comparison. My temper is shorter, my tolerances are tighter. I like to say that the apple does not fall far from the tree, but I certainly must have come from the very outer branches and rolled a bit down the hill.
But I can still see his tree from here, and I'm beyond proud to have grown in its shade. This is for you, Pops.
As far as I'm concerned, you are the greatest of the greatest.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.