Notes from Napa

Tuesday, June 05, 2007



American Legion Post 199 asked Jeffrey Warren to give a "speech from a civilian", at their Memorial day ceremonies at the St. Helena Cemetray. This is excerpted from that talk, given May 28, 2007

It was 3am. I awoke to the screams from the bedroom down below. I crept down, fearful that if I woke my grandmother, (Florence Bonetti Jessee) she might have a heart attack. She was thrashing around in agony. The screams were so horrible I had no choice.

She was disoriented. Her eyes wide open. She didn’t blink. I wasn’t sure she was breathing.

Then she started to cry.

She sobbed as she told me this was the night, the lady down the street had received the news that her boy, an airman, had been killed in action in the Pacific.

“That poor, poor woman,” Beeb sobbed.

“She screamed every night for a month and kept the whole neighborhood awake.”

“I know the day. September 13th. That was the day my Bobby died.”

Beeb had lost her own son, Bobby (my would be uncle), to Leukemia on the eve of his 12th Birthday back in 1930 some 13 years earlier.

Beeb’s only other son, Albert, had served in the Army in Europe during the second War.

What had those War years been like for that Swiss Italian grandmother who’d defied her father and run off and married a Scott. Her only remaining son was in harm’s way, daily.

Was God punishing her?

My other Grandmother, Nina Palmquist Warren, had lost her brother, Jim to TB, then her first baby (named Jim) had died in child birth, then her husband Cleve died of TB, and now her eldest boy, Jim Pop, my dad, was with the 3rd Marine Division somewhere in the Pacific.

Having experienced so much death, how did Mama Warren sleep while her boy was off somewhere fighting on islands no one could even pronounce?

In the early 50’s, Johnny and I used to love playing soldier in his grandmother’s house.

She had a room, decorated like an officer’s cabin on ship. It had bunks, even an authentic heavy metal door with a porthole and everything.

Her boy, Gene Witter (who’d famously blocked a punt to beat Stanford in the Big Game), had been on the bridge of the USS San Francisco, when a Kamikaze Pilot flew his plane into the Bridge during the battle of Guadacanal. We were kids. We never knew how much pain was in that room.

Neither Gene, nor Uncle Al, nor Jim Pop had to serve.

Albert, was Beeb’s last surviving son, her sole support. He didn’t have to go.

Jim Pop was crippled by a high school football injury. His right arm wouldn’t straighten out. When he saluted and stood at attention, he looked like this:

He had to lie to get in.

Finally, the paratroopers took him. I’m wearing his wings today.

But they wouldn’t let him jump, so he ended up in the marines where they allowed as he was fit enough to wade through water on to sandy beaches into Japanese Machine gun fire.

Gene Witter was born to power an wealth. He didn’t have to go. But he volunteered, like Uncle Al, like Jim Pop.

Just like young men and women are volunteering today.

Like you, I am in awe of these children who put on a uniform and carry a gun that we here at home might breath free, and that men and women abroad might be freed from the iron boot of vicious dictators and religious fanatics who seek to control their every thought and action.

But now I’m a parent of service age children. My perspective is a little different.

Do I want to wake up, and hear my wife screaming in the night, fearing for the safety of our only son or our two daughters? Whould I have the courage?

People like me can’t say, “I know what you’re going through.” We don’t.

But we can be grateful.

We can be respectful.

We can offer our prayers.

We can be cognizant every day, that we have what we have, we live the lives we live, only because these parents are bearing the unbearable—suffering the insufferable—enduring the unendurable—all that the rest of us might get up each day, go down to the office, drive out to the fields, or enter the cellars.

Still, it begs the question, why do they do it? Why did Al, and Gene and Jim Pop?

It would be inappropriate for one who has never seen combat to talk about Duty, Honor and Country.

But the the words of a famed old soldier as he addressed a West Point Class, gives us some perspective.

He said, "Duty, Honor, Country. The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral law and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the things that are right. The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training--sacrifice. In battle, and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when He created man in His own image. No physical courage and no greater strength can take the place of the divine help which alone can sustain him. However hard the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind."

We honor those brave men and women today.

But let us not forget the mothers, and grandmothers--many the daughters of immigrants, who due to disease and poverty were no strangers to death--yet, somehow found the strength to give their country their sons--some of whom never came back home.

If we in St. Helena sleep well tonight, it s because for generations, mothers and grandmothers, like Bib and mama Warren, did not sleep well.

You woman, many of whom are here today, raised the finest children the entire world has ever known.

We salute you. We honor hour sacrifice. We are in your debt. And we shall never forget.

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