Spring always reminds me of my grandfather. His birthday was on the first day of spring, and even though he’s been gone nearly 11 years now, I still write his name on March 20 every January when I sit down to write all of the important birthdays for the year on my new calendar. Poppy would have been 90 years old this year, but we lost him to cancer in July of 2000. It was a difficult time then, and I wasn’t able to attend his funeral in Texas, being nine months pregnant with Kayla here in MA, but it seems even more difficult as the years go by. I miss him so much. I miss him correcting my grammar. I miss him being there to rescue me from silly mishaps like running out of gas in the neighborhood when I was 16. I miss him always encouraging me to order dessert, and then asking for bite after bite until we had shared the dish evenly. I miss wrapping my arms around his middle and going for rides on his motorcycle. I miss water skiing on two big wooden skis on Canyon Lake behind his motorboat, and then stopping for Wendy’s hamburgers on the way home. I miss his big band music blaring out of a huge buffet with built in 8-track tape player, turn table, and speakers. I miss him grilling tenderloin, hamburgers, and sausages out on the grill while we kids swam in the pool. I don’t think I miss rides in his little Cessna airplane, but I sure loved them when I was 10!
I miss his intricately planned vacations and road trips, and I’m positive that is where I get my desire to travel and plan educational vacations for my family. I don’t know how I ended up with these items from a trip to Washington D.C. he planned for my sister and me back in 1985, but I’m so glad I have them. I love that he recorded everything, and that even this receipt from the Holiday Inn we stayed at in D.C. for several nights has his notation, “Trip w/ M+M – June 1995.” It was an amazing trip that he must have spent an entire year getting ready for, detail by detail. Not only did we have a V.I.P. tour of the F.B.I. Building (no tours are allowed currently), but we also had a special tour of the White House, and the Capitol Building. The tour of the Capitol was given to us personally by one of our Texas Congressmen at the time ~ Albert Bustamante. After boarding our plane back to Texas, Poppy noticed Secret Service Agents out his window. Once the plane was loaded, he decided to take a walk up to first class to see who might be found there. It turned out to be Lady Bird Johnson, and he could hardly wait to introduce his two granddaughters to her.
I miss him being a part of every milestone any of us ever celebrated ~ birthdays, graduations, football games. I miss the dry-ice packed Baskin Robbins ice cream cakes he and Gigi transported to our birthday parties. I miss the “holly” bow tie that he donned every Christmas without fail. I miss the Ziggy birthday cards he bought and signed himself (no help from Gigi!) and filled with the same number of dollar bills as your age. I remember him reading Time magazine cover to cover each week, attending and ushering Mass at his church every single Saturday evening, and playing golf at the break of dawn every Sunday morning. Not too long after Robert and I were married, he and Gigi drove to Austin to see our first apartment, take us to dinner, and give us one more gift ~ a bread machine. Always caring, endlessly generous, perfectly loving and continually interested in our lives ~ what a gift and example he was.
I think he may have loved being a great-grandfather even more than he enjoyed being a grandfather, although that time was very short lived. He was overjoyed when Kory was born, and found such delight in holding him and watching him develop. We moved to Oklahoma just six short weeks after Kory was born, and after we had settled in a bit, guess who made another road trip to visit his first great-grandson?
How I wish Poppy was still here to see what a fine young man that first great-grandson has turned out to be ~ not to mention the five other great-grandchildren he has now. I know he would be so proud. I know he would be hopping on airplanes for as long as he was able, to see all of us ~ even 2000 miles northeast of his home. He would be quizzing me about homeschooling and church ministry. He would be asking to take the kids out for ice cream or on road trips to historical sites. He would be asking me how I “stay so trim” after having three babies. He would be delighting in all of us. Oh, how I miss him.
When Kory turned 13, he inherited one of Poppy’s flight jackets, and some of his medals from his time in the Air Force. When I talked to Poppy’s brother, Joe, to get more information before giving Kory the special gifts, I discovered a few things about my grandfather I hadn’t known before. I knew he didn’t like to talk about World War II, but I didn’t know that he had dropped out of college to enlist as a pilot, having already obtained a pilot’s license as a 17 year old boy. I learned that he was a member of the 417th Night Fighter Squadron. These squadrons flew only by instrument, since their missions were always at night. Though they were all very young, they were highly skilled and very brave ~ eager to serve their country and defend freedom.
Recently, I did a little research on this group of men and found that a book had been written about this very squadron in 2007. It is entitled Beaufighters in the Night : 417 Night Fighters USAAF. I promptly ordered the book longing to know as many details as I could about what my grandfather had been through in the war. I received it in the mail on March 21st ~ the day after what would have been his 90th birthday.
I grabbed the package out of our mail box on the way to take Kory to baseball practice, and opened it once I returned home and pulled back into our garage. Sitting there, alone in my van, I quickly turned to the index and located his name ~ Tony Speier, p. 62. The tears began as I read a paragraph on that page that described my grandfather and a few other men, who were stationed in northern Africa, as being detached to Naples to help another squadron ~ the 416th. That crew had suffered many deaths and casualties, and needed some reinforcements. The 417th was said to have “scored two victories while on loan.”
Then I flipped to the middle of the book, which contains a full 24 pages of photos. More tears when I spotted my handsome grandfather and that genuine and familiar smile of his.
I turned to the Introduction and read these words:
They were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, maybe twenty or twenty-one years old. They came mostly from America’s farms and small towns, but back then America was mostly farms and small towns. They played a unique, unheralded role in aerial warfare. They may have shortened the war. They did help save the world. This is their story.
I usually call or write my grandmother on Poppy’s birthday, so when I thought the tears were dry, I picked up the phone. I asked her if she had been to the cemetery the day before, and she had ~ of course. That’s when she told me it would have been his 90th birthday, and that they would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary the weekend before. “He married me when he was 29, and turned 30 one week later,” she explained. I began to tell her about our trip to Pennsylvania to attend the memorial service of another World War II vet, and that it reminded me to order a book I had learned about recently. Then I couldn’t speak anymore, because the tears came again.
“What is it, honey?” she asked
“Joe told me that Poppy enlisted to be a pilot during the war, and was assigned to the 417th Night Fighter Squadron.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“The book I ordered is about the 417th. I got it in the mail today, and found his name in the index. Then I turned to the photos……and……..and……,” I couldn’t finish.
“And there he was.” she offered.
“Yes. There he was. His picture is there.”
At this point, we were both crying too much to speak, but after a moment or two, she asked more about the book. She took down the title and author, and said she would tell my uncles about it and ask them to order her a copy. I asked her why Poppy never talked about the war with any of his kids or grandkids. I remembered “interviewing” all of our family members for Cooper’s baby book, and telling Poppy that I would like to know more about his experience in World War II. “Awwww. You don’t want to know about that,” was his usual way to avoid the question.
(Poppy was my grandmother’s second husband, so not technically my biological grandfather. Her first husband was also a pilot in the Air Force, and was killed in a plane crash while performing a drill. She was pregnant with their second child, my uncle Chuck, at the time. When she married Poppy, he adopted her first two children, and they went on to have two more. My grandmother is a pretty amazing lady herself.)
“Your grandfather did not like to talk about the war, because he never understood why he was chosen to survive. Several times, he was assigned a certain mission, but was then reassigned to another at the last moment. Many of those times, the entire crew of the original mission was killed. He always felt that he was living on borrowed time.” she quietly explained.
I praise the Lord for that borrowed time. It has enriched and blessed my life so abundantly even to this very day, and continues on into the lives of my children ~ and now maybe even yours, dear reader.
Many a man proclaims his own loyalty,
But who can find a trustworthy man?
A righteous man who walks in his integrity ~
How blessed are his sons after him.