Sunday, January 1


Years ago before we got married, when A took me to meet her maternal grandfather for the first time she told me that he served in the Navy on a PT boat in WWII but that he never ever talked about it. The mostly-unspoken rule in the family was that nobody was to ever ask him about his experiences in the Pacific. I was curious, but I could understand the rule. I have several Vietnam-era vets in my family form who the topic of their service is too painful to bring up.

A has always adored her grandfather both because of his quietly mischievous personality - he always seemed to have a bit of candy hidden somewhere on his person to slyly fill an unacceptably-empty child's pocket - and for his keen and educated mind - he took his GI Bill and became an electrical engineer working at Bonneville. When he retired, he started taking classes and learned how to build his own computers from thrift store scrap. He never said much, and when he did say something it was usually short and practically unheard in the general ruckus of a family gathering. But it was almost always something that, after percolating in your subconscious for several minutes, would boomerang back around and hit you. Then anyone who was paying attention would wonder what you were laughing at. He is the inspiration to A as she forges onward through graduate school. She wrote a deeply touching dedication on the first page of her masters' thesis to him and had an extra copy printed and archivally-bound with the intent of presenting it to him.

A's cousin M called last week and said that Grandpa was really starting to show signs of dementia - not recognizing kinds and grandkids, forgetting where the tin of Christmas candies went, etc. A realized she had to go visit and give him the thesis. We hadn't been up to visit them in far too long, so we headed up to Vancouver yesterday afternoon. A wrapped up the thesis in some beautiful hand-made paper on the way. We stopped by M's house to pick her and her kinds up to go with us. The kids really didn't want to go, so I volunteered to stay home with them while A and M went over to their grandparents. It seemed like a good compromise at the time, but I'm wishing we'd put our foot down and made the kids come along.

A and M got back a couple of hours later. They said that Grandpa was having one of what Grandma called his "bad" days. He was happy and talkative. Very talkative, almost manic, apparently. One of the things he talked about was something none of the family had ever heard - his war experiences. For the first time, we learned the name of the ship he was on: PT-189.

A and M were stunned. One of the great mysteries of Grandpa's past was suddenly there in front of them, totally un-prompted and unexpected. When they got back to the house and told us what they learned, M said to me, "I want to know all about that boat. Can you find anything?"

We went home. I did. Google is my friend. I was excited enough when I found an image of his boat's squadron-mate, PT-188. I found records stating that his squadron saw action in New Guinea, Aitape, New Briton and the Philippines.

Then I found this:

"189" and "RON 8" clearly visible on the side. I have no idea who the officer (?) is standing on the deck. I haven't found any other information about PT-189. Yet.

I realized last night on an emotional level what I've accepted intellectually for years - there is a whole mass of history contained in our grandfathers' generation that is slowly and surely leaking away. We're losing it to old age and dementia. The men and women of the "Greatest Generation" are quietly drifting away and their stories are, often as not, vanishing with them. It's an utterly foreign concept to me, an IT professional, used to information being ubiquitous and permanent, at your fingertips while in one's bathrobe at 10:30pm on a holiday weekend evening. But I can't just sit down and google what's in Grandpa's head - and odds are that's the only place some of the information can be found.

So now I find myself on a bit of a quest: to find out everything I can about PT-189. It's a task I admit I am a bit rusty at - finding information that isn't online and isn't instantly available. I'm both sad and excited at the same time. I'll let you know what I find.


  1. My resources are at your disposal, for what it's worth.

    My grandparents are gone, but let me put a plug in for StoryCorps and the Veterans History Project. If you know someone who can contribute, please try to get them to.

  2. When I was about 10, my grandmother asked me to get my great-grandpa to tell me some of his stories while I taped the conversation. It was eerie, but now I have an irreplaceable memory of him (his voice) and some of his stories. I haven't listened to the tape often, but he's been gone since I was 18 and I still have that bit of him, and his history, left. And I can pass it down to my son someday.