Saturday, March 31, 2007
The Beginning: Son of the Infantry
The soldier adjusted the helmet liner on his son’s head and gave him a wink. The parade was about to start, the other soldiers were lining up in formation and the six-year-old boy was about to ride in a real Army jeep with his father, Major John M. Grist.
The little boy was me and I can remember how proud I was to ride in that jeep during a Winter Park Christmas parade in the mid-1950s. The helmet liner was too big, but so was the Army fatigue shirt that I wore. When we drove past my mother and sister, I waved proudly. The spectators applauded the marching soldiers and I felt like I was also in the Army. It was a defining moment for a little kid.
My father graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School (above photo) and served in World War II as an infantryman. Although most of his time was spent as a firearms instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia, he went to Europe toward the end of the war to command a prisoner-of-war camp filled with German soldiers. He received orders for the South Pacific just as the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Like many boys of my generation, we enjoyed our adventures as we wore our fathers’ helmets, carried their old metal canteens and buttoned up their Eisenhower jackets. I even tried on the Nazi uniform Dad brought home and was surprised at how small it was (because it was worn by a German teenager who was probably scared to death). When I put it on, it gave me the creeps.
My father was a quiet man of deep inner strength. Like his comrades, he brought home the kind of patriotism that was more intense than the flag-waving kind. I learned from him that there was something special about America and that it was the responsibility of the members of each generation to protect the gift of freedom they received from their parents.
My mother and father were children of the South. I grew up with stories about my ancestors who fought in the American Revolution and who defended the doomed cause of the Confederate States. They taught me that the men in my family had stepped forward in every war that America ever fought. I was raised to understand that the blood of patriots flowed through my body and into my soul. I have never forgotten that lesson.
On October 16, 1969, retired Major Grist gave the oath of office to his twenty-year-old son who was graduating as a second lieutenant from Infantry OCS. After making a few parachute jumps as a sophomore cadet at the Citadel, I decided to enlist as an infantryman. My father’s eyes got misty as he finished administering the oath to me, my mother pinned on my gold bars and the family tradition continued.
I would never claim to be half the man that my father was. When I came home from Vietnam, I joined the rest of America’s phantom soldiers of the time. We all returned as tired old men in their twenties who had seen too much of the worst of man. Then we blended un-noticed into a society that didn’t even try to understand or appreciate us. I didn’t continue my military service at that time, but nine years later I remembered the good things about the Army and I re-enlisted as a sergeant.
My father suffered a massive stroke in 1981. Before he died the following year, I spent a lot of time with him in the hospital as he tried to recover his lost abilities. He was trying to stand up one day when he lost his balance and fell toward me. I caught him and we slowly sat down together.
As he rested his head on my shoulder, he asked if he could take it easy for a minute. I told him that I had leaned on him my whole life; it was his turn to lean on me. Dad looked up at me and said “I’ll take it...”
Then he winked at me, just like he did when I was six years old.
SFC Chuck Grist