George - The Value of Our Stories.
Dog parks are a lazy way for me to get my dog exercise, and even then she hardly runs around much. This time she decided to play with a Bernese Mountain dog near a rock where 88 year-old, World War II veteran George was sitting. I noticed he was wearing a Seabees hat with the dates "1941-1945" on the patch. I asked if he was in the Seabees and he was surprised I even knew about them. For the next hour this Greek immigrant's son from Boston told me rich, fascinating stories about his life.
The SeaBees are essentially the construction engineers of the Navy. During World War II they would carry out the seemingly mundane task of building an airstrip on a newly acquired island. "Seemingly" being the misnomer. These guys would build these structures and roads and airstrips while under constant enemy fire. Imagine building your house as mortar shells exploded nearby and snipers took shots at you throughout the construction. Now you know some of what it was to be a Seabee in the Pacific during the war.
When I asked about George's time in the SeaBees he told me quite a few stories that may seem to be disconnected and nothing more than the ramblings of an old vet. Together, these short vignettes gave me a sense of the non-glamorous but essential work that went on during the war. He was sent to The Solomon Islands, worked on Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and Tulagi. One of his first jobs was to help with the relocation of a temporary cemetery for Marines killed during the initial battle of Guadalcanal. Guadalcanal is just one of the horrific battles, portrayed in numerous films such as The Thin Red Line and The Pacific. The fallen men were eventually buried at Pearl Harbor. A somber and truly unusual assignment, to say the least.
George eventually rotated back to the States. He described a stay they had in Hawaii, and talked about how Oahu was a site to see like no other but has since been lost to development and tourists. He talked about his ship coming in under the Golden Gate Bridge and he thought he was going to be discharged once he got to California only to find out they wouldn't let him because he was under 21, a minor. So, he ended up in Rhode Island waiting for his next deployment. One evening he was on the watch when a battalion came in from Bermuda, hundreds of men, and one of the chiefs who saw his name asked if his uncle owned a bar in Boston. Turns out the chief was good friends with George's uncle and gave him the option to not have to ship out with the crew from Bermuda. George took that option and waited for a battalion coming in from Normandy. He said he wanted to be with those guys because they had been in the worst of it and he wanted to learn from them.
He spoke of another evening when a truck pulled up and ten men on a list, his name included, were asked to get in the truck and don't ask questions. They were relocated to Florida where they were tasked to build giant palettes and drop them in the marshland. He said they didn't understand what they were building for a long time. The Navy brought in small tanks to drive over the mud and palettes. When his crew was finally released they were told to talk to no one about what they saw or built. Turned out they were building a simulation field for the invasion of Japan, trying to figure out how to get tanks across rice fields.
George went on to tell me about his daughter and granddaughter, and the reason he was at the dog park with a Bernese puppy. He helped cover the cost for his daughter to have a child through a fertility clinic. His daughter is a single mother and George was the go-to babysitter. He clearly delights in his six-year old granddaughter and shared with me how he is teaching her about investments and stocks. Turns out George has been investing in the market for his granddaughter's financial future. He shared how he would explain buying and selling Tesla (TSLA) stocks to his granddaughter because her name was "Tessa." She almost cried the other day when she was informed that he had sold the stock because it had fallen to $214 a share.
There were stories about his wife who eventually passed away from Multiple Sclerosis. The story about his cat that got lost on Nantucket Island for seven weeks when he was staying at his home there. The cat was eventually found, trapped in a cellar, living off drops of water from the pipes and whatever rodents it could find. After spending an absurd amount of money to bring the cat back to full health, having to feed it for weeks through a tube in its throat, the cat came back strong and went on to be "healthier than I am."
If I hadn't had work to get back to and a dog who was clearly ready to go home and sleep, I could have listened to George for hours. I wanted to hear more about his Greek family making a go of it in Boston in the early part of the 20th century. Or what it was like to be married for all those years and be by his wife's side as their time grew to an end. Or how he managed to end up with numerous rental properties both in Colorado and back east.
Mostly, I look forward to running into him again hearing more about the extraordinary life that George has lived, made so profound by simply living day-today in the ordinary-ness of life. Listening to him was another perspective check for me, making me aware of all the noise and fantastical junk our culture likes to think is important. Life is not lived because you listen to the latest top seven ways to find your passion, or because you read "Ten sure fire ways to find the job you want." It is lived by working at it, hustling, and sometimes that work isn't going to make the cover of Life magazine, but it's going to change one six year old little girls existence for the better and maybe save some mens lives on a small island in the Pacific Ocean.