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June 19, 2009

My sister and I always knew not to wake Dad from a sound sleep, because he would come up swinging. Something left over from the war, from some place called Guadalcanal, he said. We perfected our “waking Dad” technique with broom sticks and tennis balls, but he never really talked too much about the war experience which caused these sudden starts or the thrashing nightmares Mom would later tell us about. The proud Marine preferred to talk about the funny things that happened during the war: the discovery of macadamia nuts; the hunting in the jungle with a slingshot to avoid detection by the enemy; the use of that same slingshot on a particularly obnoxious Lieutenant which cost him his stripes. But any emotional discussion of the horror that sister and I learned about in our history books was clearly off limits, until.. the piano recital.

It was years, actually decades, later when I had children of my own and my oldest daughter Stacey, then 11, was preparing for her first piano recital. As a special surprise and treat for her grandpa, she learned his favorite song “ The Marine Corps Hymn”, intending to play it for him at the end of the recital. Getting him to come to the recital was a bit of a chore, since the recital fell on the same night of the World Series and his beloved San Francisco Giants were playing. But he came anyway, applauding enthusiastically and proudly at the end of Stacey’s set piece, then grumbling about having to sit through the rest of the students’ pieces. I reminded him that Stacey had something special she wanted to play at the end and he calmed a bit, but still impatiently glanced at his watch, muttering about “the game”.

As the recital thankfully wound down, I quickly gathered Dad and the rest of family up front around Stacey and the piano. As she began to play the first familiar chords of the Marine Corps Hymn, a look of shock and surprise and pride danced on the old man’s face for several seconds and I was pretty pleased with myself that I finally got him to quit carping about missing the game. Then, his demeanor and expression changed suddenly. It was as if he suddenly remembered something and he became immediately dour. I though, oh great, he’s worrying about the game again. This was later confirmed, when at the end of the hymn, he quickly and quietly thanked Stacey, then said, “I’ve got to go”, turned on his heel and left in a hurry. Son of a gun, I thought, the darn game is more important than his granddaughter’s hard work and skilled playing of his favorite piece, and I intended to call him later – after the game, of course- and chide him about his priorities and how hard Stacey had worked on learning the piece, etc.

The family went home and I watched a little of the game, still stewing about Dad’s apparent selfishness. Then I got a phone call from Dad and immediately knew something was wrong because he started out with, “Son, I’m sorry,” sons don’t hear those words from their fathers without something monumental having happened or about to happen. “Mike, I’m sorry, tell Stacey I’m sorry. But I had to leave. Her playing that hymn brought back a memory I hadn’t thought about since 1942. I couldn’t let her see me get all emotional you know.(I had only ever seen tears in my Dad’s eyes once, at his mother’s funeral.)“I was in a foxhole on Guadalcanal. It was night. It was raining buckets of water and Japanese artillery. Everything was blowing up around me and the world was ending as far as I knew. Our ships had left us alone on that damn island. We were all alone, except for the Japanese and their damn shells. Marines around me were being blown to bits. I was scared ____.

And I prayed to God to get me out of there alive, that I would do anything he wanted if he would just let me survive.. that all I wanted at that horrible moment in time was to live long enough to hear my granddaughter play the Marine Corp Hymn on the piano.” “ And she did tonight. I hadn’t thought about that moment since, until tonight and frankly it was a bit overwhelming. Tell Stacey I’m sorry. We’ll talk later.” And he hung up. Then I got emotional. Damn ol’Marine. He got his wish. We did talk later and stories that had been bottled up for years came out …all because of a piano recital that triggered a memory of a place and time called Guadalcanal.
By Mike Ramsey: proud son of a proud Marine, Chet Ramsey.

Stu’s Notes: Guadalcanal had some of the worst fighting in WWII. The war ended but as in all Wars it came home with the Men who fought. Some worse than others. We are seeing that in our men and women now, some who have been “over there” too many times. Through the years when I bumped into Chet around town we talked about a story some day, well through Mike I got one. I hope for more. Thank you Mike, that was a great story.

Everyone come to the 4th of July Veterans Memorial BBQ fund Raiser at the Riverbend Park – Salmon Pavillion, get the Patriotic Meal Deal from Noon to 5PM, $10 donation includes: 2 Hotdogs or 1 Hamburger plus Beans, Salad, Chips, and a Drink, Music by Jim Halsey “County Duo” Noon to 4PM. I hope to see you all there.