This week marks the first full week of August. Heat, humidity, and scattered storms will be featured this week in the weather, and mid-summer crops will continue to mature. Watermelons, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and peppers are all ripening daily, and will soon be featured in your share and on our market tables. The food that we are harvesting this time of year was planted in March and April, and the field plans for them were drawn up in January. Needless to say, we have been thinking about them for a long time. Their arrival on our dinner tables is always a milestone for our summer season that peaks in August.
The 5th of August, 2018, also is a notable day in my family history. On this day in 1943, while co-piloting a B-24 bomber on a training mission over Northern California, my father’s father and eight other service men in the Army Air Corp crashed near the town of Bieber, CA. There were no survivors. Three children, my two aunts and my father, were the casualties of the continuing war in Europe and the Pacific waters. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the crash, and oddly, neither the anniversary year nor the date occurred to me until only a few minutes ago.
What does this have to do with farming? The truth is, I am not sure. What I do know is that this has a lot to do with who I am. Echoes of such a loss can reverberate through generations, but so can a parent’s love and compassion. Growing up, my grandfather was simply a two dimensional figure, no more real to me than Jean Valjean or Atticus Finch, fascinating for sure, but impersonal. To me, he was simply the former owner of the pilot wings that rested on my father’s dresser. My father would often tear up when he spoke of losing his father, though, and I sensed that there was something more. I was, however, simply too young to understand.
As an adult, something happened regarding my relationship with my long-deceased grandfather who I never met. For a long time, I had defined my self-identity around being a father. I am a dedicated father, but with no instruction manuals available for parenthood, I was also flawed in some of my parental decisions. It was then that I began to realize that parents may make frequent mistakes, but also, the parents in my life had also done their best to make their children’s lives better than their own had been. I finally recognized my own father’s attempts to provide me with the security that he never had.
Around 2009, Susan and I decided to try to locate as much information about my grandfather as possible, including where he was buried and where his plane crashed. My eldest aunt and my father were too young to remember where he was buried. Also, my youngest paternal aunt was born a couple of months after my grandfather crashed. Further complicating things was the fact that she was the child of a second marriage for my grandfather, and my father had lost contact with her nearly 40 years prior. Combing newspaper articles, sparse military records and interviewing family members with any memory, we were able to establish that he had been buried in Cook County, Illinois. No further details were available.
After several leads had grown cold, we were finally able to locate his grave in early 2013. Also, in a miraculous breakthrough, the US Army was able to locate the crash report, complete with photos. That summer, Susan and I traveled to Bieber, CA with our grandchildren armed with nothing but the crash report. We stopped at the first gas station in town, and told our story to the attendant. Within minutes, several townspeople met us and they began to gather up pieces of the B-24 that had been sitting in people’s garages and basements for over 70 years. Moreover, several eyewitnesses to the crash site, well into their 80’s at this point, came out to share their story with us. It was incredible and humbling.
We returned home with some remarkable pieces of my grandfather’s last day and a plan to take my aunts and father to Bieber to reunite at the site of his crash. We only needed to locate the whereabouts of my Aunt Brucie. Using social media and other Internet leads, we found my aunt living in a small town in Connecticut and running a small vineyard with her husband. It had been nearly 40 years since she had seen my father, and she had never met her older sister in person. That was all to change in a meeting that took place in November. Susan, my oldest daughter, her husband, my father, Aunt Sandy, her eldest daughter, Aunt Brucie, and her eldest daughter stood in a rice field in Northern California where an important family ancestor who defined many traits, both directly and indirectly in the company present, departed this world. A family was reunited and childhood wounds could begin to heal with my father and aunts.
While I felt honored to be able to have a part in that reunion, I discovered many things that day about myself. My grandfather was not just a character in a story to me anymore. I began to know him through his children. I saw a dedicated father who loved his children, and even though he was human and flawed, he loved. I related. My aunt and I had only met once, and yet we both are involved in agriculture, small agriculture. Her daughter, my cousin, also grows her own food. While my cousin is my age, she reminds me so much of my own daughter. Perhaps something in me always has been a farmer because my grandfather gave me, my aunt, and others that gift across time. Maybe then, to know my grandfather intimately is to know myself and those in my life who I love. Today, on this anniversary of him departing this world, I celebrate his life, and I am grateful for the chance to know a man I never met.