My grandpa was a raccoon-trapping, frog-leg-eating, small-town Missouri farmer–the type who had worked in the fields since he was eight, served his country in World War II and was a member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars most of his life. He was painfully quiet, but when he did find some words he felt worthy of sharing, you could sometimes catch him talking about his time in World War II. He was drafted near the end of the war in 1944. He had received a postponement of induction from the United States government that allowed him to finish his harvest before reporting to duty. And it was on a cool, sunny afternoon in December when he reported to boot camp at Camp Wolters, just four miles northeast of Mineral Wells, Texas.
Upon arriving, he was shuffled into a line full of young men, mostly in their late teens and early twenties. He was twenty-one at the time. All the men were waiting to give their names and birth dates and other pieces of information to a man holding a wooden clipboard and a fountain pen at the front of the line.
“Name and birth date,” the thin, blond-haired man said in a monotone, gruff voice as my grandpa reached the man’s fold-up chair.
Grandpa stated his name and birth date and waited as the man scribbled it onto a little white card attached to the clipboard.
“Nationality,” the man echoed back when he was done scribbling.
Nationality? Grandpa said he stood there and thought about it for a moment. He was suddenly a little rattled. It had been generations ago, but his family had originally come to the United States from Germany. He even spoke the language. But not only had he never been asked that question before, he was also quite clear on whom the enemy was, and he was even more certain that his light brown hair and bright, blue eyes matched its description pretty closely.
“I don’t know,” Grandpa eventually said. The words came out timidly as he shrugged his shoulders. He was an American. He prayed this man would see this. After all, this state they called Texas might as well have been a foreign country. It was by far the farthest my grandfather had ever traveled from his bed in rural Missouri.
The man looked up from his clipboard for the first time. He eyed my grandpa up and down once, settled on his eyes and then silently returned his attention back to the clipboard. He then checked a couple boxes and handed the card to Grandpa.
“Give this to the man in the next line,” the thin, blond-haired man said, gesturing him onward.
Curious to know what the thin man had checked, Grandpa glanced down inconspicuously at the white card now in his tanned, callused farm hand. His eyes jumped over his name and birth date scribbled in the pen’s black ink, then quickly caught the word nationality and slowly read what was followed by a single black check mark: American Indian.
Well, German American or American Indian, he was just Grandpa to my two sisters and me. He called the same place home his entire life. He wore overalls or coveralls...and on most days, an old, leather cap. And this is just one of the many memories he left us.
Grandpa passed away a month before his 83rd birthday not too long ago. But today, he still inspires me. And I think you might even be able to see a little of him in River's grandpa too.