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Archive for May, 2012

One Nation – One Family

There have always been men in America’s history that have responded when the country called. Please indulge me, as I proudly share with you three generations of my own family.

Robert M. Thorn Sr., my grandfather, worked at a small dairy outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Following the loss of civilian lives aboard the liner RMS Lusitania, America joined the bloodbath known as World War I on the side of the Allied Powers. Granddad took a train to New York and enlisted in the Army. He thought the New York regiment would enter the fight faster. He trained in communications. As a member of the Signal Corps, he was a carrier pigeon handler. He served in France.

My grandmother had a hope chest in her bedroom. It remained unopened until her death. In that chest with her treasured memorabilia was Granddad’s World War I gas mask. None of my uncles and aunts showed any interest in it so my dad gave it to me with some pictures and other odds-and-ends. Granddad had written across the back of his gas mask:

“When I am in dire distress

and with deadly gases prest

stick with me and save the day

and we’ll go back to the U.S.A.”

When I read that verse it gave me a new insight into the no-nonsense quiet man I knew as my granddad.

At the cessation of the “war to end all wars” in 1918, Granddad Thorn boarded the troop ship in France and returned home. He married and fathered seven sons and two daughters. At the time of Pearl Harbor in 1941 his second oldest son and namesake, Robert M. Thorn Jr., had graduated from the Great Lakes Naval Station and was a young seaman.

Bob Jr., my dad, finished basic training and entered school for naval flight training. This would define the rest of his life. During World War II he met and married my mom, who was serving in the Women’s Army Corp as a Morse Code operator. He transferred to the Air Force when it was established as a separate branch of the military. After the war Dad was discharged from the Air Force, but he never lost the need to fly. He re-enlisted and retired after twenty-two years of service.

Robert M. Thorn III grew up knowing that service to our country flowed in his veins. As a teenager he joined the Pennsylvania Army Reserve. The Great Flood of 1977 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania saw this nineteen-year-old soldier bagging bodies for two weeks. After training to be a helicopter mechanic, young Bob transferred to the Air Force Reserve. When the American Marine peacekeepers’ barracks in Beirut were bombed by a suicide extremist in 1983, his crew from Dover Air Force Base ferried the bodies back.

Bob met his wife, Ellen, who was also a young reservist, at Dover Air Force Base. When Desert Storm started both were called. Their two-year-old daughter spent a year being cared for in shifts by her parents and grandparents while Bob and Ellen served their active duty.

Bob 3rd is now retired from the Air Force Reserve and works with his high-school age son, Braxton, and other young men in the Pennsylvania Civil Air Patrol. Braxton completed glider training this summer. He is on track to continue the family tradition.

My own son, Bill, broke his leg at Army bootcamp. He could have begged off, but he faced the challenge and drug around a cast in the South Carolina heat and humidity to graduate with his class.

That’s what Americans do; they serve when the Country calls.

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My mother has told me for years, “You look like me, except you have the finer features of your dad.” We kids love to tease her about how grateful we are she didn’t pass on her “Roman” nose to any of us, but yes, I look like her. I wore her 16th anniversary semi-formal party dress to my 8th grade prom. I even wore the matching shoes. Yes, I’m physically a mini-mama.
I think of her and smile as I glance down at my hands. They are no longer soft and taut. Deep wrinkles and brown age spots give away my years. My adoring husband says they give me character. What makes me smile is how much they still resemble my mama’s hands.

Mama grew up in a harder time than I would ever know. She and her peers, the World War II generation, promised their children would never struggle as they had.
Life was hard in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Granddad, a wild catter oil man, died of pneumonia leaving his twenty-four year old wife a penniless young widow with three children under the age of eight.  Too proud to ask for assistance, Grandma worked as a housekeeper to keep her children fed. Mama learned, as soon as she was tall enough to stand at the laundry tub, to wash and iron clothes. Times were hard and there was no time to be a little girl.

With Grandma busy, she mothered her little brother, Joe, and kept the inquisitive youngster out of trouble. She loved him more than anyone else in the entire world. It broke her heart when Joe died at the end of World War II. He was hit by a taxi cab the day he was discharged from the Army.

When the Depression ended, the Dust Bowl era blew in. Old timers remember how the silt whooshed in from every nook and cranny, coating the furniture and people alike. Just breathing was a chore. Grandma tied water soaked handkerchiefs over her children’s noses and mouths to filter out the dirt.  As portrayed in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the catastrophic conditions forced many to forsake Oklahoma. While many of their neighbors left for California to find a new life, our family stayed and continued to be farmhands on the parcel of land Granddad Phipps claimed in the Cherokee Land Rush of 1893.

While still in high school, Mama got a job at Woolworth’s Five and Ten to work their lunch counter. Her young hands made sandwiches, salads, and desserts for people who could afford to eat out. She saved her money for her future; knowing if she was patient, her time would come.

During World War II she joined the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and became a radio operator. She remains immensely proud of being in uniform and serving her country during the Axis Powers’ fascist threat to the free world. Her agile fingers can still tap out words in Morse code.

My parents met on a blind date. Soon Dad put a ring on Mama’s left hand. In two years she had two girls of her own to raise. Mama sewed our dresses, which always matched leaving the impression we were twins. She permed, rolled, and combed our pageboy length hair. In fact in my Brownie picture, I have more ringlets than Shirley Temple. This was courtesy of Mama and Toni Home Permanents. Yes, I was the one with the Toni. Then before she knew it we all graduated, left home, and started families of our own.

Mama went into the antique business when she was in her fifties; five foot two inches of determination and Okie spunk. Paint stripper and antiquing stains kept her hands spotted and cracked; her nails stained brown and broken. It didn’t matter. Her work gave her joy. She could pack a van to the roof with the best of any man.

Dad died in 1984 after two years of aggressive cancer. Work kept her too busy to sit and feel sorry for herself.  Her vocation kept her busy and young. It took decades to slow her down, Okie spunk and all. But that time in life comes for all of us.  Now ninety-one years old, she sits with her head cupped in her small hand and watches the birds out her bedroom window. Content in her memories; her wrinkles are a tribute to the decades of a long rich life.
To think of her I only have to look at my hands.

I love you, Mama.

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