Moral Compass, circa 1941
Updated: Apr 16
My grandfather's experiences in World War II bring me comfort today.
My paternal grandfather joined the National Guard in 1930, during early years of the Great Depression. He was a young man from a farming community, and an oldest child, who was trying to make his way in a world with few jobs and little money. Joining the guard gave him work, and a steady paycheck. A few years later, he met and married my grandmother. Not long after, my father was born.
By 1941, when the United States joined World War II, my grandfather was nearly 30, and was a master sergeant in his local National Guard unit. He had accumulated enough hours of service with the Guard that he would not have been required to go overseas for the war. His age and the fact that he had a young son also disqualified him from the draft. On multiple counts, he was entitled to stay home.
But he went to war, anyway. Over the next four years, he and his unit trained in California and Hawaii, and then were deployed to the South Pacific. Except for brief visits, he was gone from my father and grandmother—and eventually my aunt, his second child—until just before the war ended, in 1945.
Years later, when I was old enough to understand something about World War II, and to begin to situate my grandfather and his young family in it, I asked my granddad why he chose to go to war: “Why didn’t you stand down?” I asked. “Wasn’t it hard to leave your family?” and “Surely you could have made a contribution to the war effort without putting yourself at such risk.”
My grandfather was a kind man, and a quiet leader, so some of his answers did not surprise me. He told me about a sense of duty he felt to the soldiers under his command, explained how National Guard units travel and deploy as a team, and said that leaving them would have felt like a dereliction of his duty.
But another answer was less obvious. “Leaving wasn’t easy,” he said. “But I couldn’t see getting all that training, and collecting all that pay during the Depression—and then not showing up when it was time to do my job.” For the young man who was to become my grandfather, military service was as much about honoring his moral compass as it was about leadership.
I have been thinking about him a lot, lately—as I watched a novel coronavirus spread, leave China, become Covid-19, and then infect people around the world. I have imagined the tension my grandfather must have felt between obligation to the men in his unit, and love for his own family. I have wondered if he had sleepless nights—and if my grandmother did, too. Joining the war effort, he knew, meant he might never come home.
As schools have closed and my own children and I have begun sheltering at home, my granddad’s story has kept me company during some of my own late nights. I have felt his presence as the weight of protecting my family has settled on my shoulders. I am a single mother, and sometimes feel like a solitary living bulwark against the danger of the outside world.
But the late-night company I have been keeping with my grandfather has felt especially keen because I am not just a single mother. I am also an Emergency Room doctor. Until coronavirus, I had never imagined that doing my job would also put my children at risk of losing their mother. Covid-19 has made me face my own wrestle between responsibility to family, and obligation to my profession and community—all things I deeply love.
At least initially, my response has been much like my granddad's. I too, work with a team of talented people, and am proud of my training. Practicing Emergency Medicine has also afforded me a steady paycheck. For these reasons and more, not going to work was never really something I considered.
But as my grandfather also suggested years ago, living the consequences of that decision has not been easy. I have spent more time in past weeks imagining my own death, and planning for its possibility, than I ever imagined would be necessary.
I have updated my will, clarified my medical wishes, and asked friends to be back-up guardians to my kids should the first set of guardians I picked become ill. I have leaned on my grandfather’s memory as I did those things, and also when I beseeched relatives to spend time with my children, and to tell them stories about me, should I not come home.
And just a couple of days ago, I sealed passwords to my bank and email accounts into a large manila envelope and left it in safekeeping with a dear friend. She will open it only in the event of my death. Leaning down the decades to whisper in my ear, my granddad suggested I should write letters to my children. I did. They are sealed in the envelope, too.
Indeed, 1941 and 2020 have been commingled in my head for a while, now—my granddad’s story a touchstone and guide for my own. Some people have compared Covid-19 to war, and Emergency Rooms to the front line. It is too early in this pandemic for me to know if that analogy is exaggerated or apt. But stretched thin between professional responsibility and love of family, I have found comfort knowing that someone I loved—and who loved me—once walked this heartbreaking path, too.
On the day my grandfather’s National Guard unit left his small town, men from the unit and their families gathered at the train station. My father, just a three- or four-year old boy making his earliest memories, was there. He told me he knew what was happening was a big deal when he watched his grandfather—my paternal great-grandfather—kiss his son goodbye before he got on the train. They were a stoic, stiff-upper-lip kind-of family. My father had never seen this kind of demonstration of affection, before.
Going to work, these days, I sense, with a new kind of immediacy and understanding, the feelings of the men on the train—and those of the families they left behind on the platform, too. Then I join my colleagues in the Emergency Room and begin the kind of work that we have all been training for years to do.