Last Journey book – A Father and Son in Wartime – excerpt 3

Posted: June 5, 2013 in Just War, Last Journey, Middle East, Uncategorized
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Later that night I pulled some of Skip’s journals down from my library shelves. I opened up one of the journals he had kept in Iraq and sniffed it to see if there were traces of Skip that I could smell.

From the start, he had been troubled about the idea of going to Iraq. Given his constant studying and reading philosophy I knew he would have a lot of thoughts about the war. I had encouraged him to keep a journal; he was going to write a book about his experiences when he got home. Skip wasn’t able to complete his book. A sniper’s bullet saw to that. I am going to finish the book that my son started – the book that Skip was born to write.

II: Skip’s Dust Bowl Lineage

It was August 1945 when Grandpa loaded Grandma, Shirley, her younger sister Patsy and their younger brother Bobbie Joe into his Model A and headed for California – the Promised Land. He worked the zinc, lead and coal mines in Oklahoma until his lungs became infected. Safety in the mines of 1937 was sorely lacking. Miners worked below the ground and out of sight so the corporate mine owners were the face of the mining industry. It was more than mine caveins that killed miners. Many of them died a slow, lung-damaged death.

Aunt Pat (Patsy) liked to tell us about this trip out to California. According to the story, Grandpa, an Ottawa Indian, stopped at a liquor store somewhere in New Mexico to buy a small bottle of whiskey. He came back out to the car kicking the dirt. He got in the old Model A and slammed its frail door. “They won’t sell to Mexicans, niggers or Indians. Especially Indians.” Grandma got out of the other side of the car. “I’ll get it.” Minutes later she came out with “Grandpa’s medicine.” There were actually laws on the books then barring the sale of liquor to Indians.

They made it as far as Arizona, where Grandpa used up his last gas ration coupon. He pulled into a gas station to get gas, fill up the radiator with water and refill the canvas camel bag that hung from the front bumper. As Grandpa got out of the car he told the kids, “This is the last pee stop till we get to California so you better go now.” He walked over to the attendant who was sitting on the front porch and started to explain that he was out of coupons. The attendant said, “It don’t matter, the Japs surrendered a couple of days ago.” Grandpa paid the attendant, gathered up the kids and headed for California.

They drove on to the San Pablo region, near San Francisco, and found an old wooden caboose to live in while they worked the fruit fields. It had electricity and running water and it didn’t leak. San Pablo was a little industrial town. There were foundries spewing out black smoke that coated everything with grime and gave Grandpa a hacky cough. Grandpa got a job working in the smelting plant. This was the last job he ever had. When he became too crippled to work anymore he and Grandma packed up the family and moved to Stockton, California. Grandma was able to get welfare for me and my sisters. She found a job working at a local school as a cook’s helper.

At times I hated Grandpa. But as I got older I began to understand his sour attitude towards people and life in general. He was a proud 6’2’’ tall American Indian. He had a stoop from arthritis that made him almost a foot shorter. I remember watching Grandma drag Grandpa in an old wooden chair to the bathroom so he could relieve himself. We couldn’t afford a wheelchair because any benefits we had from Grandpa’s medical insurance plan had long since run out. He went from slamming a forty-pound sledge hammer on the closing pin of a fiery foundry blast furnace to having his bride drag him in a broken, worn-out wooden chair to the toilet.

My Dad, David “Ross” Griffin, got my Mom, Shirley Ann, Grandpa’s firstborn daughter, pregnant when they were both sixteen years old. The only way he could see to support my mom was to join the Navy. They were married on the base at the San Diego Naval Training Center. At seventeen he was in the Navy serving in Korea aboard the USS Iowa. After about a year in the Pacific the Iowa steamed into Norfolk, Virginia. Ross got tired of the “navy way” and went AWOL. He was lucky. Instead of a dishonorable discharge he got a general discharge under honorable conditions. The Korean War was ending and the U.S. government was going through a general military force reduction and he got swept up with all of the other seamen being discharged. He and Shirley set up housekeeping after he got out of the brig at Treasure Island.

DAD - David Ross Griffin

The only fatherly skill that Ross had was getting my mom pregnant and keeping her that way for five straight years. I was born in 1952, my three sisters were born in the following three years, and Mom was pregnant again.

Ross wasn’t into working, so Shirley had to get a job at the Windmill Pub in downtown Rodeo. On October 18th, 1956, on a narrow highway in Richmond, California, Shirley’s boss, “Dip,” was driving her and a couple of customers home when Dip had a sudden stroke and hit a telephone pole. Everyone in the car died, including my mom. At the age of twenty-two, Ross found himself a single father with four kids ages six months to four years old. He wasted no time in shopping us around to his family. No one would take all four of us so he turned to Shirley’s parents, the Moxleys. He figured that they were “Good Christians” who had done an okay job raising my mother, and they would keep us all together. To this day I can’t understand how they were able to take us in. Grandpa was very sick, out of work, and they were broke.

Dad was known around San Pablo as a bar brawling tough guy. It was worse now that his first love had died and he had given up custody of his kids. He was drinking in a local bar when a Hell’s Angel came up to him and asked if he would like to ride with the Angels. Ross had just gotten a motorcycle from his brother-in-law’s brother, who had to sell it fast because he was on the run for a bank robbery in another state. All he had to do was get his “colors” (the official Hell’s Angel insignia). Becoming an Angel was the biggest accomplishment of his life.

I was about seven years old when we moved to Stockton, following my aunt Pat, who had moved there with one of her husbands. We only had one car and my sisters and I were too young to leave at home alone. Grandma would get us up at 5:00 am and load us in the back seat of his 1951 Hudson with our blankets and pillows. Grandpa never had a car that was less than ten years old. It was big enough so that my sister Sharon could sleep in the back window; Sheila and Sandra got the back-seat floorboard and I got the seat.

At times there were eleven people living in Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Aunt Pat and her three kids lived with us when she was between marriages. To help make ends meet Aunt Pat got a job waiting on tables for tips only. At thirteen I got my first full time job as a dishwasher at the Rare Steer, working with Grandma. Every few years my dad would come around and get me and my sisters excited with all of his empty promises, only to disappear. He still owes me a bike.

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