In October 2010, I wrote a post called “The Hardest Thing” when my great-aunt passed away. In it, I discuss what it feels like to lose a family member when you’re on the opposite side of the world.
On this trip home, I lost another family member. I was there, but it wasn’t easier, or better. There is no easier, or better when it comes to losing someone whom you love. I won’t be there for the service in the spring to give a eulogy, so today I’ll do so here.
My grandfather was the only father figure I had a child. Some of my earliest memories are stepping into his giant (to me at the time) military boots with the long laces, “borrowing” his ever-present cowboy hat, and how huge a treat it was to sit in “his” chair–a brown leather recliner. How special it felt to take his lunch to him when he would help put together the sound system for the Fort Devens Fourth of July festivities. The sound of his voice when I showed him a spelling test or a report card. The way he would sneak me a peanut butter cup even when he wasn’t supposed to.
As a child, I idolized the American Army and the ideal of the military man because for me, he was the embodiment of both.
My grandfather spent 20 plus years in the US Army, rising from Private, First Class, to Sargeant, First Class. Although too young to enlist for World War 2 (he was only 16 when it ended in 1945) he drove an ammunition truck in the Korean conflict, and worked in satellite communications in the Vietnam conflict. He never really spoke of his experiences in either, even when I asked him as a history major in college.
After he retired in 1979 (I was 10 months old at the time), he continued to work on Fort Devens for over a decade further. Because of his ties to the military and the base, I spent a great deal of time on military bases. My grandfather taught me how to properly salute (something I happily did to anyone in uniform, regardless of rank), how to say the pledge, and how to stop and drop everything when the horn blasted across the base to signal the lowering of the flag.
When I was 17, I took the ASVAB test (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) and scored high enough to have a recruiter interested in me for military intelligence. My grandfather puffed up like a peacock at my score. His pride, though, didn’t stop him from counseling me that I had other options like college (or both college and the military if I wanted to do ROTC).
He was proud to be a veteran. One of his most prized possessions was a display that had been made of his medals, ranks and so forth. After he retired, he volunteered to drive a van to help other veterans get around, taking them to dr’s visits and so forth. When he entered a nursing home, he wasn’t happy to lose his independence, but it was meaningful to him to be with other veterans.
My grandfather taught me how to argue. When I was too little to read, he would read an article from the paper TO me, and then ask me questions about it. When I was older, he’d ask me to read something, and then take an outrageous position and make me argue him around to my viewpoint.
He wasn’t the type of grandfather to read me a fairy tale, but newspapers, history, and certain magazines were fair game.
In retrospect, it’s surprising that the man who inspired my love of history with encyclopedias never really talked to me about his own. I heard a few stories about his childhood, but most of the “family stories” I knew were my grandmother’s. I was shocked, when at the age of 32, he told me several stories I’d never heard before. I had no idea our family was from England on his side (all I’d known prior was that we’d been in the US “forever”–something I can now say is documented back almost 400 years). In all my years of wistfully telling my family I would love to learn to ski, he never shared that he’d competed as a downhill skier in high school. And I had no idea what to do with the story of his brother starting a grass fire that eventually burned down the house.
Grandpa could be silly. He once took me fishing, but I’m pretty sure his motivations had far more to do with the hilarious payoff once I was asked to touch a worm and then a fish than anything else. He told great jokes. Because he was so serious, when he started a tall tale, I’d buy into it hook, line and sinker, his twinkling eyes the only clue that I was being had. But he also knew when not to laugh, like when I, as a young child, insisted on putting the “proper” number of candles on an anniversary cake for him and my grandmother.
My grandfather was a devoted family man. He would drop everything for one of us. I don’t think he was ever the adult who took care of me when I was sick, but he’d go get popsicles in the middle of the night when I was throwing up or had one of many cases of strep throat. When my great aunt Carol became ill, he took care of her. He and my great aunt Eleanor had a daily coffee break. He did all of this without fanfare, without any request for acknowledgement. He was uncomfortable with accolades, and would be a bit embarrassed by this one as well, no matter how well-deserved.
He loved photography, and was a skilled photographer. His modesty, though, would keep him from telling you that. I remember seeing amazing photos from his time in the military, but none seem to have survived past a storage shed collapse one winter. As he aged, he picked up the camera less and less, but the few photos I do have show his eye for composition. I didn’t pick up photography as a serious hobby until after we moved to Singapore in 2010. We never had the opportunity to go out and shoot together, which I regret.
The ever-present cowboy hat
Much like his glasses, his cowboy hat was a fixture of my childhood memories of my grandfather. He never looks quite right to me in the photos where he isn’t wearing one.
He loved trucks, and drove one for my entire childhood. If you were seated in his truck, you listened to his music. He liked trucker songs and country music. My extensive knowledge of certain country artists and songs can be traced to those hours in his truck.
When I had my own children, I was eager that they meet their great grandfather. While we lost him too soon for them to remember him well, it comforts me to know that he knew them. Had we lived in the US, he would have seen more of them (and me), but even from Singapore, we managed to have a relationship. He had a chance to tickle Elanor and make her laugh. He got to look into a newborn Rhiannon’s big brown eyes.
Milton Eugene Hill was a good man. A father, grandfather, great grandfather. A lover of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups. A smoker. A coffee lover. A photographer. A skier. A joker. He grilled a mean piece of bar-b-que chicken. He liked M.A.S.H. and A-Team. He enjoyed reading Louis L’Amour novels. He was fiercely independent. He was all of these things, and far far more.
He was my grandfather, and I will miss him.
March 1929-December 2013
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