Please redirect your links!

Saturday, August 08, 2009


My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago. I was asked to say something at the funeral. Normally i don't write out full speeches, but i knew given the emotion involved and the things i didn't want to forget to say, that writing it out would be the best choice this time.

So, since i had it written out anyway, i decided to post it here, if for no other reason that 1) to honor him and 2) i haven't posted anything in a really, really long time.

(me, my father, and grandfather a several years ago)

For a long time growing up, to me Papaw was just Papaw. One of those constants that was always there and never changed. As I grew older and became a teenager, I saw him as kind and gentle. A man of reason and intelligence. Always quiet and understated - but also through the eyes of a teenager I'll admit: he seemed a little boring. He was an architect and engineer, and that was ok I suppose, but I didn't exactly see him as exciting - and he ate at Luby's a little more often than a 13 year old thought was normal.

But I am very happy to say that as I grew up further, I started to see more of my Papaw then I had before. And soon I realized that seeing him as more than just a quiet and kind grandfather also taught me a strong life lesson.

It's worth backing up a little more and saying that I grew up hearing stories of far off war heroes and great men in my family, but I had never met any. They had all passed away before I was born. They all existed in stories and pictures, but I'll admit that sometimes it was hard to identify with them.

I also remember hearing that Papaw was in a war - in fact I remember being confused as a little kid if it was WWI or WWII. I knew he was in the corps of engineers. I remember being told that they "built bridges and things like that". When I looked at my grandfather and thought of an engineer, I thought nothing more of it. I was proud of his service. I thought he built bridges for the army.

Then a few years ago, just as the parkinsons was starting to take him from us, he started talking. Sharing in a way he apparently never had, or at least hadn't in years. I don't remember if I asked a question or if he brought it up. But he started telling me stories I'd certainly never heard - and later found out, I don't think had ever been told.

And I emphasize that not out of pride for him confiding in me. It was pure luck that I was there when he decided to share what he did with me. I emphasize it because it is the clearest demonstration of his humility.

You see, he was a hero. Like so many of his generation he didn't think so. He was just part of the war machine. He was drafted in and was doing what he had to do. But I can tell you now he was a great man and a hero.

He was a part of what was nicknamed the Red Ball Express. They were the crack team of engineers and truckers that did the impossible: built fuel lines and kept them safe from Nazi saboteurs to keep up with Patton's march through Europe.

If that still may not sound like much, you're in need of a quick history lesson:

Just after the allies' landing at Normandy on D-Day, the allies broke through and had the Nazis on their heels. Allied leadership decided to abandon plans of a slow advance and pushed their advantage on the Germans - not allowing the enemy to setup another strong line of defense. The goal was to keep them in constant retreat.

This is something the Germans were unprepared for because it was, of course, impossible.

The trucks and tanks of war, not to mention the supply trucks needed to bring soldiers and ammo to a constantly moving front line, were not exactly hybrids. They burned up fuel at an alarming rate. So much so that the quickly advancing army outran the existing supply chain. Prior to that it could take days to extend pipeline miles over the rolling hills and fields of Europe.

My grandfather and his fellows were called in to rapidly extend pipeline from Cherbourg to a constantly advancing set of supply stations, which then moved the fuel to trucks that carried supplies to the front lines.

They were asked to do the impossible: keep up with George Patton. They did. Without them, the allied march through Europe would have taken months longer and cost many more lives if the Nazi's had had more time to shore up more defenses at the Rhine. Instead, my Papaw and others like him kept the axis on their heels and turned the tied of the war.

After Papaw first told me about this, I did some research and found a quote from Gen. Patton about the work of the engineers: "my men can eat their belts if they have to, but they have to have fuel in their trucks and tanks".

When I read that quote to Papaw he said "yeah, that sounds about like Patton."

Unfortunately when Papaw first started telling me these stories, I didn't realize what was happening. It was an extension of a conversation we'd been having for a while and suddenly I realized that he'd been telling me his war stories for over an hour.

Now that I think of it, I think it started by him telling the story of how he and Mamaw met just after he'd been drafted while he was in training. They had agreed to keep writing during the war, and then met back up afterwards.

But then he started telling other stories. About his daily patrol up and down the latest length of pipe w/ his rifle, checking for signs of sabotage to the line. On one of those trips, he came across a cow that had stepped on a German landmine not 6 feet from where he had just walked past on his previous patrol.

He told a story of how, while awaiting transfer to a new station in Europe, an officer dropped his own rifle and it went off, shot through the ceiling and killed a soldier upstairs. Papaw said "He had to live with that", and I could tell by the way he said it that papaw had lived with it too.

He told another story about how a group of soldiers found an abandoned German storage tank, still partially full with fuel and no one knew how much fuel was in it - or why the Germans had left it intact. They called my grandfather in. To help them figure out how much fuel was in the tank. As he said: he did the basic calculus and figured out how how much fuel was in the tank. Nothing really". But I have a feeling that was not a common knowledge set for 19 year old soldiers in the 1940's. So much so that if I remember right, he got a commendation for that action.

Yes, my grandfather got a military commendation in wartime for his use of calculus. To me, that's pretty cool.

After realizing I had been talking to Papaw about these things for more than an hour, we had to leave. I called my dad and told him what I'd just heard, and he was surprised. He'd never heard any of these stories. So the next day I went back, with maps and a tape recorder in hand, and talked with Papaw some more.

The only time I remember him saying he was scared, was during the outdoor camp out portion of basic training. He said the mosquitoes were as big as your hand. He didn't sleep the whole night and he just kept telling himself it was only for that one night.

He talked about the "tin can" liberty ships. Built to cram as many soldiers on board as possible, as quickly and cheaply as possible. He said the bad part was that they returned during winter time in the north Atlantic, with horrible storms. 20-40ft waves that would rise up, then as he put it "just drop out from under the ship and we'd go crashing down" He said they thought they would fall apart but nobody asked questions when getting on board. They just wanted to go home.

And there were other stories too. Too many to tell here. I'm planning on putting up a website with as many as I can recall and caught on tape, very soon.

I'll admit that while growing up, Papaw was never on my list of who I wanted to grow up to be like. He was just a quiet, understated architect. But now I understand a bit more of who he was. Not just an architect, but a boy who became a man on the battlefields of Europe, and who played and instrumental role in freeing Europe.

And the most amazing part of all - he didn't care if anyone knew. For me, a rather proud and often loud young man - someone who easily judges others by their appearance and is all too quick too call out my own accomplishments - this was a huge lesson.

I'd personally known a war hero for years, but never known it. Because to him, it wasn't important.

And here is the lesson I learned.

He was just doing his job then, just as he went to work and quietly did his job for the rest of his life - and changed the landscape of central Texas and beyond with his countless designs and consultations. He wasn't "just" an architect and an engineer. He was a good man, who lived his life and did good work. He took pride in his work, but a quiet pride. He didn't care if people knew. He simply did good work and let it speak for itself. All of it just as important to him as helping to free Europe. I am almost ashamed that it took seeing him in a more dramatic light to see that it was his whole life that was great. But I see that now.

And I know now that if I turn out to be anything like my grandfather, I am both very lucky, and a great man indeed.


Anonymous said...


What a beautiful, loving tribute you created to honor your grandfather!
Be sure a hard copy is filed for Ian for when he becomes a man and wonders how he came to be who he is.
I'm so sorry we never got to know Mr. Nicholson.
You have a gift for expressing thoughts that move others to tears.

Josie McCamish

The Forechecker said...

That's great stuff, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Paul, this was very sweet. I really admire you for doing this for your grandfather. Your Papaw did sound like a wonderful man. The stories of his time in WWII were so interesting. We just don't realize what these young men went through.

Aunt Irm

Dave said...

Very touching. And, a great read, too...

Dave T.