Monday, September 23, 2019

My Favorite Scene: Jarhead

My grandfather died a few weeks ago. His name was Robert Withrow, he was 94 years old. Robert was known as “Whitey” to everyone who knew him, a nickname he acquired early in life due to the jet-white hair he had from his birth until his passing day. But his grandchildren knew him as Pap, and Pap was a very good man.

In my 34 years of life, I never heard Pap say a single bad word about another person. Not once. Not ever. Instead, he lived his entire life in service of others, as defined by the God of his understanding. He was an incredibly humble man; he did not speak of his intense spirituality unless prompted, and he never sought credit for the many generous things he did. He genuinely lived every day to make life better for others.

The number of selfless stories I have about Pap are endless, but I will briefly share one I learned recently myself. Pap was stationed in Germany during World War II with his hometown buddy, George. Pap and George were 18; young and scared, eager and ready. George had a girlfriend back home, but soon after he arrived in-country, George’s girlfriend sent George a “Dear John” letter, effectively ending their relationship. (Terrence Malick conveyed the devastation of such a letter in The Thin Red Line.)

George was crushed. Ruined. He wanted to go home. He didn’t have any fight in him. After a week or two, with George still reeling over his loss, Pap secretly wrote George’s girlfriend a six-page letter, describing, in great detail, how much George loved her, and how wrecked he was over losing her. A few weeks later, George’s girlfriend asked George for forgiveness. When George arrived home safety, he married his sweetheart, and they stayed happily married for nearly 70 years.

No one ever mentioned the letter Pap wrote her. Ever. In fact, George himself didn’t even know about the letter. He found it as he was going through his wife’s things, shortly after she passed. He presented the letter to Pap, nearly 70 years after Pap had written it, and it was only then that Pap confirmed he authored the letter.

That’s the kind of man my grandfather was.

As a Veteran, Pap was entitled to a military funeral procession. As we all left the funeral home a few weeks ago following Pap’s service, we carefully followed Pap’s American flag-covered casket as the hearse drove toward the cemetery. Each car in the procession had a small American flag secured to its roof, signifying that we were part of a funeral for a Veteran. I was the third car in line, and as I pulled out of the funeral home and onto the road, I looked to my right and saw something I will never forget.

I noticed a man in his late 50s/early 60s, slowly walk a few steps into the road, take his dirty baseball cap off, and hold his hand steady in the salute position until every car had passed. As I looked closer, I noticed that the man was subtly, and purposefully, blocking a line of eager cars who were trying to merge into our procession line. But the Saluting Man did not waver.

To add to the poignancy of the moment, I must be honest and admit that the Saluting Man did not look well. He was unclean, but coherent and alert. Maybe he was homeless and down on his luck. There was a Vietnam Veteran convention in town that weekend, maybe he rode in for that. Maybe he worked at the small auto body shop he was standing in front of. Maybe he was a homeless Vietnam Veteran making a few bucks at a body shop. I’m not sure who the man was, but I will never forget the way he studied the hearse, registered that it was a Veteran procession, slowly took off his hat, and rose his hand to a salute.
Now, because I have no idea how to experience something in life without immediately relating it to a movie, as the Saluting Man in my rearview mirror got smaller, a scene from Sam Mendes’ Jarhead popped into my head. In the scene, Marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) has arrived home from Operation Desert Storm along with his unit. The soldiers sit on a bus as it slowly makes its way through a parade celebrating their return. Suddenly, an older, grizzled man jumps on the bus and begins to congratulate the Marines on the clean job they did in-country. The older man, played with remarkable nostalgia by V.J. Foster, is dressed in clothes with patches that make it clear he served in Vietnam. His face wears the burden of war as well. It’s sweaty, sunken, lost. After thanking Swofford and a few other soldiers (what a great handshake the guy has), the Vietnam Veteran loses focuses, and asks if he can take a seat on the bus to compose himself. (Watch the scene here.)

“Every war is different,” Gyllenhaal’s narration echoes. “Every war is the same.” No matter how far you get away from a war, it never leaves you. Nor does the camaraderie of the people who fought beside you, or in similar campaigns.
There’s another, final aspect to the Saluting Man story that feels especially important, given the time we’re living in. The Saluting Man did not know my grandfather. In fact, the Saluting Man had no way of knowing the age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious preference of the person in the casket. He only knew that the person was a Veteran, and as such, they deserved respect. And that idea of blanket solidarity is something that is so heartwarming to see.

Every war is different, every war is the same.

To put it another way, had the Saluting Man passed away before my grandfather, you can bet Pap would have politely stopped traffic for that man’s funeral procession to pass. He would’ve held his hand firmly fixed in a salute, no matter how weak he was feeling. It’s just the kind of man he was.

18 comments:

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your grandfather. That's a lovely story to go along with it, I hope others in your family noticed as well and will remember it. I'm sorry for your loss.

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    1. Thanks so much, Brittani! I really appreciate that. He was a great man who lived a great and full life!

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  2. You made me think about all the stories like that one from your grandpa that must be over there. Thanks for sharing it, you write so well.

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  3. That is a beautiful story. Sorry about your grandpa. That is a good dude. The story about the veteran was touching as I often feel they get neglected for their services. They need the kind of care for everything they've done including money from the government. That scene in Jarhead (which was an alright film) is a great example of everything you just said. I salute your grandfather.

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    1. Thanks so much for this comment, it was very nice of you. And I agree, Jarhead is an okay film, but that scene really nails me.

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  4. This is such a wonderful post. It sounds like your grandfather was a good person and had a beautiful life and either one of those things is more than most people out there can say about themselves

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    1. Thank you so much. And yep, I'd definitely have to agree with you on that one!

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  5. This is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I've ever read. What a great way to tribute the great human being your grandfather was.

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    1. Wow Sonia, thank you for saying that! That really means a lot.

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  6. Sorry for your loss. You should turn these great stories into a film.

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    1. Now you're talking! I would love to make a movie based on this story. It's such a special tale.

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  7. Excellent post, AW. Sorry you had to write it. My grandfather was a vet, too, and reading this made me miss him a ton. But at the same time...brought a smile to my face.

    That letter story is phenomenal, and I only hope to have half that kind of impact on someone one day. Thank you for sharing your grandfather's story.

    RIP, Pap.

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    1. Oh man, thank you so much for this comment. This was all so nice of you to say!

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  8. This is such a wonderful and moving tribute to your grandfather and veterans everywhere. I'm so sorry for your loss and nice to hear that there are more people like him to make the world a better place.

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    1. Thanks so much, Katy! I really do appreciate this!

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  9. Sorry for your lost of your grandfather. My father-in-law was a veteran and we lost him a few months ago. I was surprised, and I really shouldn't have been, with how many veterans came out to his funeral. We hadn't really published it anywhere but we did all of the work to make sure it was a Navy funeral and word must have gotten out. I was extremely touch by the turnout and the presentation of everything for my mother-in-law's benefit and for his memory.

    I really should watch Jarhead again. Gyllenhaal really has been incredible for decades now.

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    1. Thanks so much, I really appreciate this. And I'm sorry for your loss as well. The lifelong camaraderie Veterans share, despite rank, campaign, and brach, is truly heartwarming.

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