Friday, October 20, 2006
I had a great uncle pass away recently. He was from my mom’s mom’s side of the family. He was one of those “greatest generation” guys. His last name was Jung. Growing up, I always thought his last name looked rather Japanese. Of course, coming from west central Ohio, I don’t think he had a lot of Asian lineage. I suppose that the “J” starting his last name resulted from some rather recent German lineage. He never seemed German though. He always seemed, well, very salt-of-the-earth – very World War II’ish.

There’s some irony to all of that with his name looking Japanese but probably actually being German. You see, he graduated from high school in 1942, just a few months after the attack on World War II. After graduation, still a boy really, he immediately went into the Navy and spent the next four years aboard the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier based out of San Diego patrolling and fighting primarily in the south Pacific and Indian Ocean. This very much shaped the man he was to be for the next 60 years of his life.

He was an Aviations Specialist (or something like that) which meant he was riding in the plane on many bombing raids, providing guidance. I remember hearing of him suffering horrible nightmares for many years after he returned from the war. He also suffered from hearing loss which, I am sure, was from his time around the deafening aircraft of that day. Shortly after returning from the war, he was one of a few soldiers chosen to be flown to Hollywood and play small parts in a film about World War II.

His uniqueness and stature as a man continued when he returned stateside and met my great aunt. At the time, she had a young daughter who had been born out of wedlock, something which, back then, I think often got you sent far away for a quiet abortion or, at best, adoption of the baby immediately after birth. Marrying a single, never-married mother would have bothered many men back then a great deal I suspect. While God extends grace, much of the world is often operating in a grace-free zone I'm afraid. I believe that it says a lot about my uncle that it didn’t bother him. He and my aunt married just a few years after he had returned from the war.

He did what many returning veterans did. He went to work in a factory. Of course, I should say that he was incredibly fortunate, given what he did in the Navy and his length of service, to have even come home at all, much less all in one piece. I cannot imagine the horrors he suffered as a very young man. I am sure that being a wartime soldier is never fun but I think that these guys who went in to the serve right at the height of World War II, when our country was really scrambling to protect itself, really had it bad. Never once, though, do I recall hearing my uncle talk about the war. There are stories of a few times when he opened up and talked about it to certain relatives but I believe that just trying to close the door on that period of his life, the best he possibly could, was his way of dealing with it all the best he knew how.

He had an incredible knack for fixing things. He did a lot of large appliance repair and actually, I always thought his factory job involved appliances. It wasn’t until his funeral that I learned it didn’t. He built a nice life for his wife and daughter over the years. There was never any question of his obvious loyalty to and love for them. They ended up with a nice home that was always meticulously well-kept. It was probably the first “modern” home that I remember any of my relatives ever having. He loved to fish and he and my aunt usually owned a large travel trailer which they would pull behind a truck. After his retirement, they would take off in their camper for weeks and even months on end, going to mainly northern places where they could get away from it all. Again, I think it was his way of dealing with painful memories of wartime experiences. They spent a couple of summers in Alaska with their trailer. One summer, they took my grandparents with them on a long trip across the USA and back. I remember my grandparents talking of my uncle standing on the beach at San Diego and staring out over the Pacific Ocean for a very long time. Staring at the place where four of the most impressionable and difficult years of his life had been spent. I cannot imagine the emotions he would have felt.

In talking about him as a “greatest generation” member, you may have the impression that my uncle was some big, strong hulk of a man. That isn’t the case though. He was always thin, of rather slight build and average height. Nothing spectacular about him on the outside. He didn’t strive for personal glory or fame. He worked his life for his family. Like I said earlier, very salt-of-the-earth.

While he was working in the factory and building a life for his family, he somehow stumbled across antique clock repair as a hobby. He would buy up old antique clocks, usually from the 1800s, at auctions and then repair and restore them. At one time, their home had upwards of 400 clocks in it of all shapes, sizes, styles, types and chimes. It was a wondrous place for me as a kid to visit. Eventually, people started bringing their clocks to him for repair. It allowed him to retire relatively young as I recall, giving him more time for fishing and travel. There was talk at one time about his maybe teaching clock repair to me but unfortunately that never happened. It’s sort of a dying art I believe. Lisa and I have one of his clocks. From the late 1800s, it actually has a bit of cool art deco style to it. An oak wall cabinet clock with some neat cut glass on the front. Just like his hearing was never the greatest, his eyesight wasn’t either and it always amazed me that he could see well enough to work on those small clock pieces.

He had his workbench in their basement, with all sorts of small tools and gadgets about. They had an old diner-style booth in their basement, too, where we used to play as kids when we visited them. They had a pool table in their basement which was neat but I didn’t k now what to make of it when I was young. After all, “pool” starts with “P” which rhymes with “T” which stands for “trouble.”

I think that what made his generation so great was its selflessness. They seemed far more concerned with building a better world and providing a better life for their children than with their own needs. My aunt worked in a factory, too – sort of a Rosie the Riveter thing. Sometimes I wonder if that generation’s selflessness and provision for future generations didn’t lead to our own materialistic world today in some odd way. Could their selflessness have paved the way for our selfishness?

It’s unfortunate, though, that Evan will only have very small memories of folks from my uncle’s generation. They’re leaving this world quickly. My uncle’s health declined radically in recent years and my aunt worked valiantly to keep him at home up until his final few months. Her devotion to him was huge. She truly lost her best friend when he died. In many respects, I suppose he was also her savior here on earth, restoring her dignity after having a child out of wedlock. It was hard to imagine my uncle’s decline in health from what he was as a WW II vet, slipping into Lewy Body Dementia in recent years. We know that he is better off than all of us now and we take great courage, hope, and joy in that. He was indeed a great uncle … and a great example of the greatest generation.

  posted at 6:44 AM  

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Todd R. said...

Hey Todd,

Thanks for the post. Reminded me of my Grandpa--Elmer. He was a medic in the Army Air Corp. Same kind of guy. Also, though, it reminded me of my own dad. He was in Vietnam from 68-69.

Good stuff. I liked the Music Man image as well as the "Could their selflessness have paved the way for our selfhishness." There is a thesis paper in there somewhere!

Thanks again!



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