My family–the Person family–has given more than our fair share to the military:
Archie Person, Army
Walter Person, Army
Warner Person, Army
Nathan Person, Army
Andrew Person, Army
Alvin Person, Army
Jerry Person, Air Force
Five of the seven brothers listed above were in the service at one time. On this Memorial Day, I’d like to remember my uncles and my father. Fortunately, we never lost one to the war, but only Uncle Alvin is still with us.
My father, Andrew, talked incessantly about the war. The stories have faded but I remember his friends and occasional army buddies that would comb over their experiences with such relish, that I was shocked to learn by reading his obituary, that he only spent two years in the army.
The military was integral in the launching of our nuclear family branch in New Jersey: my Mom and her cousin Rachel answered the appeal for young ladies to attend a USO social for the young men in the military. Aunt Rachel picked a dapper young man who would become my Uncle Russell, while Mom picked out the handsome young man who would give her three daughters.
My parents were absolutely gorgeous in their youth and began corresponding. He was deployed to Korea and the Philippines –two theaters back to back without the chance of coming home. Shortly after he returned, on Jan. 10, some year in the 40’s, the two married and used the GI Bill to buy their house.
My Dad did not look at the war through rose colored glasses. Whatever he witnessed in his role in the Signal Corps was his undoing. He spent years in therapy, and the young couple grappled with his demons that did not jive with his peaceful Virginia upbringing. He self-medicated with alcohol which led to a plethora of problems.
This formerly joyous one-man band wrote copiously, played the piano and sang for anyone. He was always the life of the party and brought many friends home. Coming from such a large family, his father employed all sons who wanted to work in the family contracting business, which built many of the homes, businesses and city structures in the area. That was not for Daddy. He wanted to be an attorney, but my grandmother always said “Lawyers are Liars” so he went to school to be an body and fender man, so he made his living that way.
One fateful day, a huge auto part disengaged from its hoist and crashed down upon him. After that, Dad went through a long struggle of hospital visits. I have memories of rolling down the grassy hills at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital while our mother visited him.
After 12 years, the two divorced and my Dad became a crackling, far away voice on the phone, always calling from somewhere exotic. He had fallen in love with California on his trip there and his dreams became mine–the place that he painted such vivid pictures of–warm weather, palm trees and blue skies.
One courageous thing on my Mom’s part was she never let their downfall stand in the way of our relationship with him or the Person Family. My dad technically had 19 sisters and brothers, but 14 survived the flu epidemic which made family gatherings larger than life. Because we spent summers in VA, Dad’s side made up for our intense father hunger.
“What a Difference a Day Makes” was a hit song during 1975–the soundtrack of my senior year in college. I often had to drop what I was doing to rush to his bedside because the constant drinking led to an acute case of cirrhosis of the liver. Although he made it to my graduation in Upstate New York, by summer’s end, he passed away. In his passing, it seemed all of the loopiness of his life was forgiven and the family came together in Virginia en masse. His brother Nathan, who lived in California, drove across country to the funeral. I had been accepted to USC but there was no money for graduate school, so I clinched my teeth and worked in a dress shop until I got the call from my oldest sister, whose turn it was to rush to Dad’s bedside. She had been only moments too late.
After attaching myself to my Uncle Nathan at the services, I mustered the nerve to ask him if I could drive back to California with him. He called his wife, Aunt Thelma, and she graciously accepted. I just had to scurry up to New Jersey to collect my things. As I pulled into the driveway, the whistling postman walked up with a letter from USC saying there had been a computer error. My eyes could not believe the crazy amount of money they were now awarding me! God and Dad were helping me all the while, arranging things.
Now, all these years later, my youngest son, Jaaye, who never met my father and never knew this story, is fulfilling his dream. Of all of our sons, he is the one the Person family agrees reminds them most of Daddy. He got to know them all beginning with an Antoine Fisher moment, when we first deposited him in their care when he attended Hampton University, in Virginia. He graduated from Howard Law School recently and although he is still grappling with the bear of the California Bar, God and Dad will see him through that too. Of this, I have no doubt.
Happy Memorial Day to the men of the Person Family, my husband who served in the Navy in Viet Nam and all veterans and their families everywhere!