Uncle Joe was one of nine children born to my maternal great-grandparents: Gilliard, Dorothy, Janey, Lena, Jacob, Annie, Joe, Hubert and Betty Ann. From a small town in Alabama, they all answered the call to serve our nation and all of them survived to return and make civilian lives for themselves. Of the nine, Joe lived closest to the land, raising his garden year after year, putting up quarts of tomatoes, corn, beans and peas, soup starter, peaches, apples and a variety of other vegetables and fruits that would carry he and his family through the winter. He also enjoyed hunting. It was at Uncle Joe’s table that I first tasted venison, and it was delicious, well-seasoned, well-prepared. Uncle Joe was a prepper before prepping was popular, when everybody prepped because, well, that’s what they did.
I guess that was why it chafed him so badly when he offered to serve his country and they insisted he go where they sent him and stay there until they sent him elsewhere. He was a G.I., but G.I. Joe he was not. The story has been told that he missed his mother’s cooking so badly that he would sneak off his guard duty post and run home through the woods for a few meals, and then head back to camp with biscuits and cornbread filling his pockets. After being reprimanded for this a couple of times the Army realized it could not break Joe of this annoying habit and so put him on a ship, a place from which he could not run. The first shore liberty he received, his feet had barely hit solid ground when he spied his older sister Dorothy, an Army Captain, walking down the street ahead of him. He ran up to her and whisked her up in a big, brotherly bear hug, for which he was again punished, this time assigned to chipping paint off a destroyer scheduled to receive a fresh new coat. Apparently G.I.s weren’t allowed to come into physical contact with officers, even if the officer was his sister.
Uncle Joe’s next assignment was on a cruiser in the Pacific, the last place he could run away from or get into trouble with his siblings because he did not receive shore leave in the Pacific theater. Joe was put to work in the kitchen. One morning a curt young officer approached Joe as he was cooking breakfast and stated, “The Captain would like butter on his eggs.” Without looking up, Joe responded, “You can tell the Captain he’ll get his eggs just like everybody else,” and as he finished the sentence, he turned to find himself face to face with…the Captain. And that is how he found himself chipping paint again, only this time in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, exhausting work and much harder than scrambling eggs or peeling potatoes.
And perhaps that explains why Uncle Joe slept through battle stations a few days later when the ship came under attack. He tried to explain he was just so worn out from the intense heat and labor that he simply did not hear the alarms. This time he was court-martialed, and although the details are unclear exactly what his punishment was, I know he finished out the war without any more stories, at least no stories he would tell his great nieces and nephews.
I only saw Uncle Joe a couple dozen times in my life. We lived so far apart, and once I was married I never went back to Alabama with my mother and aunts for the annual family reunion, with the covered-dish dinners, 4-part hymns around the piano, little cousins spread out on palettes wall-to-wall at Aunt Annie’s or Aunt Dot’s. Over the years, there were less and less siblings of that large family to gather with. Uncle Joe did come up to North Carolina once a few years ago with his sister Dorothy, Aunt Dot to me, and my husband finally got to meet him and listen to his stories and see his great beaming smile. Aunt Dot passed away a couple of years later, and that left Uncle Joe, the last of the nine siblings.
Uncle Joe suffered a stroke three weeks ago and passed a week later. He has rejoined all his brothers and sisters now, as well as his wife and all his in-laws, and my Grandaddy and Granny Hogue. I imagine there is great joy in that reunion, and probably quite a bit of 4-part harmony in the hymns they’re now singing, in that place of eternal light, where there is no longer the need for hope, and where they practice war no more.
As I saw the flags lining the main drive on my way to town this morning, I thought again of all those good people, and gave thanks for their willingness to risk everything, to sacrifice their health and potentially their lives so that I, and my children, could enjoy the freedoms we have today because, well, that’s just what they did.
Thank you, Uncle Joe, for your service, even if it was reluctant at times, for the light in your smile, and the joy you spread through your stories and your memories. And many thanks to all those families who observe an empty place at the table this Memorial Day, who continue to burn the light of hope, who dare approach each day with joy, until the time we all rejoice that at last there is peace on Earth.
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