I usually write about learning and in a way, this post is no different. As a child, I learned a lot about “being a Smith” from my grandfather. He sat me on his lap and said stuff like, “Smiths are hardworking”, or “Smiths are stubborn,” or “Smiths are honest.” Simple things that were easy to remember. Even though I’m a McCollum now, I still hear Grandpa saying, “OK Smitty, how are you going to solve this one?”
Today is Grandpa’s birthday. I called him, but since he didn’t answer, I couldn’t tell him how great I think he is. So, I’m going to tell you. You see, my Grandfather Smith is a hero. My grandfather went off to fight World War II when he was still 17 years old. He later served in Korea and he earned two Bronze and one Silver Star. Years ago, my uncle accompanied my grandfather to the dedication of a local Korean War Memorial. The speaker that day asked everyone in the audience who had earned a Purple Heart to stand. A large number of the men in the audience stood. The speaker then asked everyone in the audience who had earned two Purple Hearts to remain standing. Most of the men sat down. Finally, the speaker asked everyone in the audience who had earned three Purple Hearts to remain standing. Everyone sat down, except Grandfather Smith. For a moment the audience sat in silence, then the silence was broken when one of Grandpa’s friends called out, “Smitty never learned how to duck!”
As heroic as my grandfather is, he has always pointed to his younger brother, Gene, as the true hero of the family. Great-uncle Gene was shot down while serving as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. Shortly after Uncle Gene was shot down, Grandpa retired from the Army and went to work on Robert Kennedy’s campaign. Almost every time Grandpa came to visit my family, we would stop by the Vietnam Memorial and wait while Grandpa tried to take a photo of his brother’s name. The photo never came out.
Recently, I had the chance to go back east to visit my family. While there, Robb and I stopped at the Wall and I tried to take a picture of Great-uncle Gene’s name.
I wish Grandpa a very happy birthday today, but I also want to express my gratitude for people like Uncle Gene, who gave up birthdays doing what they thought would make a better world for the rest of us.