Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grandpa McIlree's Legacy

McIlrees tell a lot of stories.

From my perspective as a four-year-old, Dad told the best stories. He talked about Grandpa McIlree, a World War I soldier who took care of the Army's horses. When Grandpa returned from winning the war, he became a respected veterinarian in rural Wisconsin. Even as a little boy, I understood that Grandpa lived his faith by serving his community. The man, gone eight years before I was born, grew stronger and bolder with each telling.

"Could he lift up a house?" I asked.

"Sure," my dad replied, swiftly corrected by Mom.

Whether or not Grandpa McIlree could accomplish that feat was unimportant (although even today I imagine him single-handedly picking up a house). His wide-brimmed cavalry hat, wool Army blankets, and black leather cartridge box made his war stories come alive. I'd wear the hat and ask about Grandpa in combat. Was he sad when his horse got shot out from under him? Was he scared during the fighting? Did he shoot any Germans?

From that time onward, Grandpa's legacy made a large, if quiet, impression on what I wanted to accomplish in life. I chose a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps for many reasons, but one was because I wanted to do national service like Grandpa. Like the war stories I devoured as a little boy, I had big ideas about helping the homeless in Philadelphia.

Sometimes the task was going to seem hard, I knew, but God wanted me to help them all. And Grandpa and I were both in our early twenties when we started our respective adventures. Did I need a better motivator than that? I just didn't realize that I wanted, in my own naive way, to live the myths about Grandpa McIlree.

Within a week, North Philadelphia killed my silly dream of being a champion for the poor. 2006 was a year of record violence for the City of Brotherly Love, featuring a triple-digit murder rate and rampant crime. Many of the homeless I was talking with had been addicted to crack, alcohol, or heroin for years. Living in poverty was the norm, the violence of living on the street an unavoidable reality. 

Within months I had my own stories of a housemate being mugged, of homeless people being assaulted, of neighbors being killed. I even obtained a souvenir: a knife with a six-inch blade confiscated in my agency's day center. I got a small taste of what helplessness and anger and sadness and despair felt like for a person living in North Philadelphia.

My own experience removed the myths of Grandpa McIlree's stories and made him more relatable. When I reflected more deeply, nothing about his experiences as a cavalry officer seemed redemptive. His stories never described war as an adventure. He never bragged about any heroic achievement.

My own research embellished the harshness and brutality of his stories in war-torn France. For example, while hauling cannons to the front at the battle of Chateau-Theirry, Grandpa described rows of dead soldiers so thick that it was hard to move forward without stepping on bodies. 

That would have been a normal experience for him. And according to my dad, Grandpa responded with silence when asked if he had killed anybody, which I believe is the answer itself.

Yet for me, Grandpa's most poignant story is one he never talked about: his chance survival of chemical warfare. He only described being unable to put his mask on before the shells filled with gas exploded near his position.

But I can imagine seeing him through the words of poet Wilfred Owen: in a "thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."

That was how my grandpa finished his service in the First World War.

Grandpa's return home was not easy. He had a lengthy and painful recovery, one that left him gaunt and weak for a long time. His future bride's family worried that his physical condition would make him a poor choice for a husband. More than any war story, however, the story about his return home remains the most helpful for me as a young man.

I returned home from Philadelphia feeling very confused. Most of the homeless addicts I met on my first day were just as homeless and addicted on my last day. I had witnessed the worst of what drug abuse, violence, and apathy could do to a community. I was not convinced that I had accomplished anything helpful toward bettering the neighborhood. I felt like a failure.

Reflecting on Grandpa McIlree's stories helped me to reevaluate my faith and my sense of self. Grandpa, rather than become cynical, disenfranchised, and angry like so many other World War I veterans, made a different choice. 

He chose to focus on civic engagement and compassion for his community, despite what terrible atrocities he had witnessed. He chose to evaluate his life goals not just on that initial and formative wartime experience, but on what good, long-term goals he could accomplish as a community leader, a veterinarian, a husband, and a father. He chose to love others.

That life long choice is the legacy that Grandpa McIlree left for his children and grandchildren, and it is what I try my best to emulate.

Read more about my journey with Grandpa McIlree on Isle Royale.