Neither Hero Nor Saint

In 1906, my maternal grandfather picked up a typewriter and threw it at the principal of his high school. He was 14.

Shortly thereafter, he left his hometown in southern Minnesota and made his way to Montana, where he found work as a “hired hand”–a cowboy, in more romantic terms. With the help of his horse, Pickles, my grandpa Julian roped, herded, sang, and ultimately homesteaded a plot of land outside of Wolf Point.

And then, in 1917, he followed the call of war, leaving Montana for training in Washington state and ultimately service on the battlefields of Europe. There, family lore has it, his eagerness and quick feet earned him a job delivering messages on the front lines; his proximity to constant explosions resulted in diminished hearing, something that plagued him the rest of his life.

At the close of World War I, Julian returned to Montana and his homestead, until family obligations (taking care of his mother after his father’s death) pulled him back to Minnesota. With his days as a cowboy and a soldier behind him, the rest of my grandfather’s life must have felt anticlimactic. Certainly, he married. He fathered five children during the Depression and the early days of World War II. He became a rural mail carrier.

He also became an alcoholic, one who used a leather strap and his fists on his wife and children in his fits of rage. He taught them capitulation, powerlessness, and patterns of passive-aggressiveness that still play out, generations later.

As a grandfather, he was kind. I remember sitting on his lap, reading the comics with him; I remember having to yell my words to him to be heard. I remember his fondness for me. Even more clearly, I remember some years later being fifteen, at a party, and catching a whiff of whisky. My knees buckled with the rapid, sensory memory of “Grandpa.”

When I was eight, he was found dead in the kitchen, having outlived my grandmother (she, a decade younger than he, had passed away a year before; my mother and aunt can never forgive themselves for always believing that she would get some “good” years, some “free” years after his death…for surely he would die first–but then he didn’t). At his time of death, he was in his pajamas; he was alone.

More profoundly than these stock details, squirreled away in my memory, I remember my mother’s tears, the trauma in her voice, as she told me about the time her dad’s drunken rage reached a new height. He not only went after the kids, but he tore after their mother, chasing her and hitting her with a broom, until he finally turned over the dining room hutch. My mother fled the house, hoping to find help for her mother from the neighbors, who were good friends. As my sobbing mother hammered on their door, she saw them looking out the window at her and then retreating, closing the curtains and willfully turning a blind eye to the violence and chaos next door. In that moment, a certain faith–in community, in neighborliness, in the willingness to stand up for what was right–shriveled inside my mom. And back at home, the rage continued, unabated.

Such is it, therefore, that when I think of my grandfather, I remember him in his full human complexity, through his adventures, his work, his service, his kindness, his temper, his fallibility.

On this national day of remembrance, I don’t need to vaunt my grandfather as a hero. I don’t commend him for his “sacrifice” of military service–although I think it was a valid career choice for those years of his life, one that counts as a contribution (in the same way that I think that my sister, who has taught the academically-unprepared kids of inner city gangbangers, contributes to making a difference…or the nurse who sang to my newborn as she danced him down the corridor to me for a feeding on his first night of life made a difference…or the undiluted passion of Paul Wellstone made a difference).

But the truth is that my grandpa Julian was just a man, one who created momentum in his life through a violent act, who was trained into the violent ways of a bloody war, and who then used a convergence of tendency and training to elicit a flinch, a cowering, a hand held up to shield a blow.

As I look at all the flags hung so high on this Memorial Day, I think, with a perverse kind of affection, of whisky and bombs and poker and loudly-told stories and jokes. He is in my memory, this grandfather of mine.





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31 responses to “Neither Hero Nor Saint”

  1. lime Avatar

    yes, we do have some sort of odd connection going on…

    we were fortunate in that my grandfather’s drinking did not lead to fits of violent rage. but i’ve heard the tales of children finding him passed out in the snow and the women he chased…and the fits of rage and then withdrawal my grandmother showed in her frustration….neither hero, nor saint is quite right. just people who served when called and who were indelibly marked by service.

  2. That Chick Over There Avatar
    That Chick Over There

    Amazing. Really.


  3. Jazz Avatar


  4. JohnnyC Avatar

    Your family pieces work me over Joce.

    In this is a cost of war that never makes the balance sheet.

    As the kid of a Vietnam vet my childhood reverberated with a similar echo of the battlefield. I fear and feel for the kids and grandkids of those returning from Iraq. You can take the boy out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the boy.

    Thanks for a fitting memorial on this day.

  5. Christy Avatar

    Holy CRAP. This was some of the best writing I’ve read in a long, long time. Filled with honesty without being emotionally crippled. We forget that these “heroes” of our military service are just fallible men & women who, many times, had the repercussions of war haunt them and their families for the rest of their lives. And that it continues to reverberate through the generations.
    Thank you for sharing this. While I thank your grandfather for his service, my prayers will be that your grandmother & their children would finally have peace & freedom from the terror they lived.

  6. Theresa Avatar

    Wow, that is some story. I think your grandmother is the one who should be honored on Memorial Day.

  7. Lone Grey Squirrel Avatar
    Lone Grey Squirrel

    How much did the war affect your grandfather, I wonder. Sometimes we have to love the person even if we hate some of the things he did. The photos of you with him seem like ones of love and trust.

  8. Diana Avatar

    I guess that’s so much of life, isn’t it? The good with the bad. I’m glad your childhood memories of him were of love and fun, I’m heartbroken that those of his wife and children were the opposite. My paternal grandfather, while not reaching the same level of abuser that your grandfather did, was not the nicest of men. Then he had a heart attack and turned his life around, becoming someone very beloved to us all. Thanks for writing this. It was truly well done.

  9. yinyang Avatar

    I’m not a fan of the word hero. Thus, this is perhaps my favorite Memorial Day blog yet. In an odd way, it’s fitting, too.

  10. Glamourpuss Avatar

    The whole catastrophe, eh?

    Your honesty is lush and refreshing. Thank you.


  11. frannie Avatar

    very powerful story….

  12. Voyager Avatar

    Powerful writing. I wonder that more men of war don’t come home to be abusers and beaters. After all, they have been taught as soldiers that violence is a solution.

  13. heartinsanfrancisco Avatar

    This gave me goose bumps, Jocelyn, for its stark honesty and beauty.

    I admire your writing so much, and in this piece, the fact that you never substitute sentimentality for sentiment.

    War marks all who go, and who stay behind. Nobody really survives it intact, sad to say. But I’m glad that you at least have loving memories of your grandfather.

  14. CS Avatar

    I have known many men who made much better grandfathers than fathers, who were able to somehow put aside their violence for that new generation. And so it makes sense to me that you can remember him with affection while still recognizing the brutal side of him. The saddest part of the story for me was the image of your mother’s neighbor’s deliberately choosing to ignore her need. The reading of it left me chilled.

  15. Lee Avatar

    War is a dangerous nursemaid. I’ve always wondered how men come back home after having been brainwashed into killing machines. Maybe both personalities inhabit the being.

    Thank you for sharing such a personal memory.

  16. J Avatar

    Good for you. I think we’re not truly remembering anyone if we’re picking and choosing which sides to remember.

  17. My Reflecting Pool Avatar
    My Reflecting Pool

    what a powerful story. Its good he mellowed. I feel that a grandparent redeems themselves a little through their grandchildren. You can’t be all bad when someone cares about you. It may sound naive, but, I believe it.

  18. Infinitesimal Avatar

    wow, that’s quite an essay.

    i just tell the tale of a great grandmother that was never mine, or anybody else’s

  19. choochoo Avatar

    I’m with Jazz. Wow.

  20. Dan Avatar

    Sounds like your grandfather did good things as well as bad things, had good qualities as well as bad.

    In fact, it sounds like he was a human being. 🙂

    Nice post Joc.

  21. Mike M Avatar
    Mike M

    Great read. I will be back for more -0-0-

  22. Wizened Wizard Avatar
    Wizened Wizard

    Such a heartfelt and clear-eyed view of your grandfather.

    Was it the war, or did the war just legitimize his violence? (You mention him throwing the typewriter at age 16).

    I once conducted an interview for an electronics assembly job with a gentle, well-dressed (a button-down shirt and vest compared to others who came in T-shirts and dirty jeans), intelligent man. At the end of the interview I asked if he had any questions, to which he replied, “Could I leave if I have to?”

    Questioning what he meant, I learned that “if someone got hurt, if there was blood, could I leave?” was his concern. My mind did a quick age calculation and put him in Vietnam in his late teens.

    He had recently worked in a grocery store as a bagger – despite his 4-year degree in physics – but that job had ended abruptly. I later learned that his duties in Vietnam included picking up body parts and putting them in body bags. As he thrust food into a grocery bag his mind suddenly saw bloody flesh and he began screaming.

    The point of this story is that you can take the gentlest person in the world, expose him to the hell that is war, and forever doom him to a life of emotions and memories that he can not control. And if that is so, how will a person with angry or violent tendencies play out his lifetime?

    Your story is moving and I thank you for sharing it.

  23. velvet girl Avatar
    velvet girl

    This was a very moving and affecting story. That’s all that I can really put into words. Well done.

  24. jen Avatar

    there are many ways to honor. seeing the good from the bad and honoring still is one very good way.

  25. Top cat Avatar
    Top cat

    jocelyn this is a wonderful post.
    Thank you for writing about your grandfather and your memories.
    We never know if this temper was borne out of the ugliness and horror of witnessing unimaginable things.

  26. Karen Avatar

    I know that neither of my grandfathers were angels – maternal side: alcoholic and abusive; paternal: distant, unaffectionate (except for the grandkids) and racist. My childhood memories (before the teen years) are filled with laughter, helping out in grampie’s greenhouse, calling granddad an old fart (I was the young fart) and teasing him about his man boobs (hormones due to an illness). As I got older, I started to see them for how they were around other people and it was shocking.

    I know the truth about each of them and that they weren’t perfect. However, in those happy childhood memories…they were to me.

    I’m sorry that your mother and her siblings (and as a result, you and your generation of the family) had to experience this. However, I look at the three generations on my father’s side. My father, although he inherited a lack of patience and emotional detachment, is a better man than his father. My brother, in turn, has more patience, is more affectionate with his own children and has become a better man than our father. I’m hoping that by the time he has grandkids, that generation perhaps might be perfect. 🙂

  27. Malnurtured Snay Avatar
    Malnurtured Snay

    He doesn’t LOOK like the typewriter throwing type …

  28. urban-urchin Avatar

    Once again you blow me away with your writing. Brava.

  29. Dorky Dad Avatar
    Dorky Dad

    OK, you win for the best Memorial Day post. I don’t have an official award, but you win nevertheless.

    People are complex beings. Actually, your grandfather’s tendencies remind me of my wife’s grandmother — who had similar violent outbursts in her younger years, but really softened up to her grandchildren. Then again, she didn’t drink whiskey.

  30. mcewen Avatar

    You’re certainly right about the complexity [can’t find an email, so I’ll just say thanks]

  31. Mother of Invention Avatar
    Mother of Invention

    He is certainly a strongly defined man in your memory. I am so sorry for your mom, sisters and their mom for what they had to endure..but I suppose it wasn’t uncommon in those days and neither was the response of the neighbours.

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