Veterans Day always reminds me of my papa, or Yucky Papa, as I nicknamed him when I was a toddler. The name came as I went to go hug a very greasy and oil-skinned grandpa who had just finished working on a car in the driveway. He loved the name even though it brought questionable looks from those who didn’t know the backstory of how he earned it. I think he preferred it that way, and would always flash a snarky grin that matched the twinkle in his baby blue eyes.
Yucky Papa was born in 1923 and cheated death many times as a child. That tenacity would serve him well as he entered the United States Navy at the age of 19 during World War II. He was one heck of a fighter pilot and his reputation grew to match his impressive capabilites. My grandma tells about grandpa’s daredevil antics when she was courting him while on leave from the Navy. She was standing along a riverbank and a young hotshot pilot wanted to impress her by doing a flyby. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough for him, so on his next time around he decided to fly under the nearby bridge, nearly clipping his wings underneath.
Grandpa served on Bombing Squadron Five and flew for several naval carriers in the Pacific. One day, there was an opportunity to fly a mission but only one crew was needed. Grandpa and another pilot decided to flip a coin to see who would get to fly the mission that day. Grandpa, who was always excited to fly a mission, was pretty disappointed when he lost the coin toss. But on that missions, the other pilot and his gunner met enemy fire that decimated the tail end of their plane, and they went down over the Pacific and never made it back to the ship.
I think about that coin a lot.
After that coin flip, my grandparents went on to have eight children, 19 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren (so far). I am here today because of that coin flip. I believe there are no coincidences in life and that God knew how the coin would land that day. Two families would continue on while two others were never meant to be. The importance of that moment in time is not lost on me.
Yucky Papa didn’t talk about this story very much. I never heard him talk about his feelings when he realized that he could have been the pilot who was shot down that day, but I imagine there was a lot of survivor’s guilt from knowing he could have died that day.
I try to honor the granddaughter who could have been on the other side of that coin, the woman she could have been today but never got the chance to be. My husband says there was never going to be a granddaughter like me on the other side of that coin flip, and I guess he is right considering our faith beliefs, but thinking this way allows me to live my life in a way that would honor that other woman–even if she was never going to be here in the first place.
On Veterans Day, I salute and value each and every veteran who fought for our country, who fought for my ability to be here today. Those who gave the ultimate sacrifice after a coin flip and those who came home with visible and invisible battle scars are the true heroes of this country and should be honored every day, not just on Veterans day.