A collection of letters rested, well preserved, in a green suitcase. On top of the pile was an open note, handwritten by a Navy man aboard the lead ship to Normandy on D-Day, my grandfather Dean W. "Hap" Polen, credited to the author Henry van Dyke:
"To be glad of life because it gives you to chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars. To be satisfied with your possessions but not content with yourself until you have made the best of them. To despise nothing in the world except falsehood and meanness, and to fear nothing except cowardice. To be governed by your admirations rather than by your disgusts; to covet nothing that is your neighbor's except his kindness of heart and gentleness of manners. To think seldom of your enemies, often of your friends, and every day of Christ; and to spend as much time as you can, with body and with spirit, in God's out-of-doors. These are little guideposts on the footpath to peace."
This twentieth century suitcase details a time of love and war: it contains the correspondence between Gloria "Glo" Polen--a nursing student in California, PA and Dean "Hap" Polen of Avella, PA--a college man called by the Navy. They were the first couple married by fireside at The Century Inn, a charming little place in Scenery Hill, PA. A generation later, they became MiMi and Pop Pop to four grandchildren. He returned from the service to be a successful businessman and she became a nurse. I am so thankful, as their grandchild, to enjoy tangible pieces of their romance. In those days, I've gathered that they enjoyed double dates--an evening of dancing was always deemed "a swell time."
Also in this collection of letters is an article about my great uncle Robert Polen, enlisted in the Air Corps; he endured a leg operation behind Russian lines without anesthesia. Pushed out of a burning plane with his parachute, he was mistaken for a German soldier and nearly shot by Russians-thankfully, one officer was convinced he was an American. He was only 20 years old at the time, and the youngest pilot to graduate from The Western Training Command. The article said Uncle Bob had the "highest regard" for the Russians who administered care to him.
Among Pop Pop's teachings were these: to love music and the arts, to be respectful and generous to others, to take chances, and to be relentless in pursuit of goals. I remember the first time I dove for a ball on his tennis court as a seven year old. I convinced my grandpa to continue hitting with me rather than tend to my skinned knees. I could see the creases on his face as he headed for his side of the court, and I knew he was smiling. I enjoyed friendly rivalry as much as he did. Maybe the child I was then somehow sensed the trials he'd overcome were greater than any I would see. I loved exploring his den to see the medals and memorabilia of years past; battles won, and comrades lost. He chose not to mentor his grandchildren by showing us the honors or physical rewards of hard work, but rather by the examples of it. These were his "little guideposts."
Above all, I cherish and continue to learn most from his inclination for poetry, literature, and writing. I hope to someday read my way through his list of favorite poems and books. A page in his journal reports transporting five seriously injured men to the hospital ship near the shores of Normandy. The entry concludes, "I will never forget them." The account of D-Day details the weather, the sounds, the geography, his thoughts--my grandmother, the same day, June 6, 1944, penned the reaction at home as word was broadcast over the radio. Her household woke to the sound of church bells; the chimes played the National Anthem and "America" every hour. That day she wrote to him, "it is the first day since you have been gone that I have thought you will be back sooner."
She was with us until I was six; my grandfather was here until I began college. Before making the trip home to Ohio on the morning of his memorial service, I sat outside my dormitory, on a stone ledge overlooking Hanna Hall where his post secondary studies also took place. The morning shadows kissed its architecture to create a scene worthy of a painting. So moved by what came over me, to describe the stillness and spiritual warmth of that moment, I can only say that it was surreal.
I found the words of John G. C. Brainard's Epithalamium, appropriate for a last salute to my grandfather, and I dedicate it to those who are remembering our veterans this week. If you have stories to share, we'd love to hear them.