December 29, 2014:
70 years ago today my grandfather fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He was a sergeant in Company E, 334th Regiment, 84th Infantry Division, called "The Railsplitters". His unit held part of the northern flank of the bulge for more than a week, the men in frozen foxholes separated 100 yards from each other, ten times farther apart than the standard defensive posture because there were so few troops to hold the line; the Germans could have overrun them at any time, if they'd had the gasoline. Then in a five-day battle, they recaptured the town of Verdenne, as the Allied counterattack squeezed the Germans from both north and south. On 12/29/44 they were resting in Verdenne.
I know this because I inherited his service records on my mother's death twenty years after his. I don't know it because he talked with me about it. He didn't talk about it.
After the war he became a rancher in Montana. He was active in his church, which participated in the movement against the Vietnam war. When I helped organize the huge demonstration against the Gulf War in San Francisco on 1/26/91, we had busloads of churchgoers from Montana unloading one after another at Justin Herman Plaza - and I thought of him.
We were not close at all. I was too rebellious to be close with my family. But I wonder if he didn't after all have a profound influence on me. Let me explain.
When I was six he gave me a then uncirculated 1922 Peace silver dollar. Shiny, perfect: no wear, all detail intact. He told me to keep it in my pocket until I'd worn it smooth. I've had it in my pocket for 51 years and it's about half worn down. Whenever I walk with a hand in that pocket or reach in to fetch my car keys I touch the coin, and think of him, and think of the Peace which the dollar celebrates. There's a kind of magic in that. Throughout my life it's encouraged a kind of groundedness, probably my only groundedness, in that thought of celebrating Peace.
In my life I've organized against the Vietnam War; for the Sandinista revolution; for the victory of the revolution in El Salvador and against the horrible death squads there; in the sanctuary movement for Central American refugees; in the Free South Africa movement of the 1980s; against the Gulf War in 1990-91; against tuition increases and for greater student, faculty and staff control of universities; against the University's repossession of People's Park in Berkeley; against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the second Bush presidency; and I've leant my body and voice to the Occupy movements in the cities where I've lived. For much of that time I was a professional organizer: very poorly paid staff. I've often wondered what he would have thought of all that. He was a redneck, after all. An antiwar redneck. Welcome to America.
I would like there to be no more wars. I think he would approve of that.