Posts Tagged ‘honor’

This is another segment of “Last Journey.” This is a book that is written by me with the help of my son SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr. He was killed by a sniper just outside of Baghdad. At the time he and I were working on a book that we planned to call “The Great Conversation.” He was conflicted about having to kill men or be killed. He was a philosopher and he had difficulty reconciling his mission as a combat soldier with the teachings of the great philosophers. This is except 5. We will be putting excerpts on this blog for the entire book so we estimate there will be about 100 excerpts.

In the last excerpt

In the prior excerpt Linda and I found a place to live.  It was tough since we were both only 16.  I have just gotten home from a full day at school and a full day at work.

I grabbed a soda and some chips and turned on the television. There was  Nixon with his five o’clock shadow, looking nervous: Good evening my fellow Americans. Ten days ago, in my report to the Nation on Vietnam, I announced a decision to withdraw an additional 150,000 Americans from Vietnam over the next year. I said then that I was making that decision despite our concern over increased enemy activity in Laos, Cambodia, and in South Vietnam. After full consultation with the National with the National Security council, Ambassador Bunker, General Abrams, and my other advisors, I have concluded that the actions of the enemy in the last ten days clearly endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam now and would constitute an unacceptable risk to those who will be there after withdrawal of another 150,000. To protect our men who are in Vietnam, and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program, I have concluded that the time has come for action. Tonight, American and South Vietnamese units will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam.

My first thought was: How cold does it get in Canada? I changed the channel and adjusted the rabbit ears on our hand-me-down TV. The scene was a bunch of unshaven, tired-looking young men walking a trail through a Viet Nam jungle. There was napalm burning in the background. The only sound coming from the TV was the deadly noise of machine guns and helicopters swooshing by overhead. The words over the scene were “and today’s body count is….” I switched the channel again. I mouthed Walter Cronkite’s “and that’s the way it is on April 30th, 1070” as he closed the CBS Evening News.

The country went crazy over Nixon’s announcement. Students protested at Kent State University in Ohio. On May 2nd the Kent State R.O.T.C. offices were burned out. The next day, the Ohio National Guard was sent to the campus. Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes promised to use “every force possible” to maintain order. Rhodes denounced the protesters as worse than “brown shirts” and vowed to keep the Guard in Kent “until we get rid of them.” On May 4, about 1,500 student protesters gathered on campus. Four students were killed and nine others were wounded when a contingent of Guardsmen suddenly opened fire during a noontime demonstration.

June 1970 – Fort Ord, California

Finally my application to the National Guard came through. It was raining the day I arrived at the processing station at Fort Ord. A stern sergeant lined us all up in a loose formation and laid it out: We would be processed over the next few days and assigned to our various basic training units within a week. There would be haircuts, shots, tests, more shots, more tests. The first day we all got haircuts. I could really feel the morning Monterey breeze with my new buzz cut. Later on that day we were issued Army boxers, tee shirts and socks, a duffle bag, Army greens, fatigues, boots and other gear. We were beginning to look like we belonged in the Army. National Guardsmen (NGs) were trained alongside the regular Army draftees, but you could always tell them apart. The NGs knew they were going home after their training and didn’t pay a lot of attention; the regular Army trainees were eager to learn all they could because most of them would be sent to places where their lives depended on their training.

Basic training wasn’t that tough. I was assigned to unit A13 (Company A, First Battalion 3rd Brigade) and issued a punch card. If we did something above and beyond the call of duty we could get our merit cards punched by a training officer or NCO. It didn’t take much to get your card punched. Things like looking sharp at morning roll call, extra shiny boots, a good shot pattern at rifle training. The whole merit card system was somewhat juvenile. If we got enough merit points we could actually go home for a weekend during basic.

One morning toward the end of August I got a call from Linda telling me she was pregnant. I was stunned. I had been gone for two months. I didn’t have a job, and had just signed up for college; our only income was the meager pay I was getting from the Army while in basic training. Linda was living with my grandparents.

After nine weeks of basic training, we were promoted to A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training) and assigned an M.O.S. (Military Occupational Specialty). My MOS was 94B20 – cooks helper. Hardly a “tough soldier” MOS, but soldiers need to eat. I was never told why I was selected to be a cook, but two weeks after basic I was one of forty future Army cooks standing in front of a stove. The first thing we learned that day was how to crack two eggs at the same time. I also learned how to make jellyrolls from scratch. In nine weeks I went from not knowing how to flip an egg to being able to cook a meal fit for a general. But I was glad to be going back home.

Stockton – November 1970

I arrived home in time for Rene’s first birthday. We lived with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple of weeks while we looked for a place we could afford. Grandpa had softened his negative attitude toward Mexicans while Linda was living with him. So much for the racist old Indian. We ended up at the Brown Top Trailer Park again. All the old tenants were still there, probably because of the low rent. This gave kind of a homecoming atmosphere to our return. We had moved up to a bigger trailer on the other side of the park, away from the heavy traffic. It was a lot roomier, and had a small dining room table that would accommodate two place settings. We also liked the fact that the built-in heater could be turned on without a match. There was a front and a back door. I had to have a place to study so I nailed a piece of wood across the back doorway. That was my desk. I could sit there in the doorway and study in the fresh air. Above the door I built a shelf for my reference books. I’d never had a study before, and it was magical. The trailer was older than our first one but in much better shape. The paint was fresh and there was a small yard. We didn’t worry much about theft. Any burglar who wanted anything of value would just keep driving past Brown Top. We could open the curtains along the front end of the trailer and let the sunlight in once in a while. The landlord had paved the dusty dirt road in the trailer park. Life was good.

In February 1971 I started at Delta Junior College. I had never known anyone personally who had gone to college. I still had my job at Paul Cox Studio, the paint store whose owner had once given me unused paint to paint the shed out in front of our trailer. Mr. Cox was a retired executive from a major Northern California furniture chain. He had worked himself up to a mid-level management position and taken an early retirement to start his own business. One night Mr Cox invited Linda and me over for dinner. He and his wife – “the love of my life, Betty” – lived in the nicer area of town. I had never had a reason to go into this area before. I parked my ’57 Volkswagen in front of his house. We got out of the car quickly so that Mr Cox wouldn’t come out and see the piece of junk we were driving. I was afraid he would notice the bald tires or the peace symbol that was standard issue for all VW bugs. I really needed this job so I didn’t want to make any political statements. I was in awe of the Coxes’ house: no broken windows, no peeling paint, a lawn that covered all the dirt in his front yard. I had never been in such a nice house. It made me see what could be possible with a little luck and a good education. At the same time it seemed to push those possibilities further from my reach. How do we get from a trailer in a dusty trailer park to a house like this?

Paul altered my work schedule to fit around my school schedule. I was lucky: whenever my tuition was due or I needed money for school, business at the studio would be good enough to generate bonuses for the employees. Several months later, when Paul found out that I was going to major in accounting, he let  me start doing some bookkeeping for him. When I went back into the records, I discovered that my school needs had mysteriously dictated when the bonuses came.

III: Darrell R. Griffin, Jr. Is Born

A bomb explodes in the men’s room at the U.S. Capitol; the Weather Underground Organization claims responsibility. U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley is found guilty of twenty-two murders in the March 16, 1968 My Lai Massacre and sentenced to life in prison. A Los Angeles, California jury recommends that Charles Manson get the death penalty. A lot of bad stuff happens in March of 1971. One really good thing that happens in March is that Darrell Ray Griffin, Jr. is born.

I have to explain the whole thing about naming him “Darrell, Jr.” Years later he would ask me if I named him Darrell because it was cheaper. To this day I cannot remember why we gave him that name – my name. But I’m glad we did. Having the same name always made us feel closer. We brought him home to the Brown Top Trailer Park. His sister Rene was now sleeping on the fold-out couch-bed in the living room part of the trailer. Skip had a bassinet that Linda got from her baby shower.

August 6, 1971 – Stockton

It was near closing time and Mr. Cox had his feet on his desk reading the New York Times. I had mixed my last gallon of paint and was cleaning and shutting down the paint machine for the evening. As I walked into the office to say goodnight to Mr. Cox I noticed a headline: “’72 Draft Lottery Assigns No. 1 to Those Born Dec. 4.” In 1971 anyone who had a selective service lottery number lower than 125 had a good chance of being drafted. The draft lottery number for my birthday, June 21, was 296. This meant that I would never have been drafted. I had taken a gamble back in May of 1970 and joined the National Guard. Now I was locked into six years of meetings twice a month and two weeks of service every summer, but I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to Viet Nam. I didn’t really mind being in the Guard. It was like a weekend job. I always felt a little guilty about the guys that got drafted and went through basic training with me at Fort Ord. I knew I was going home after basic and they were going to be trying to stay alive in Vietnam. I would go to NG meetings twice a month and get paid for it. It wasn’t much, but since I was making close to minimum wage it definitely helped the family budget.

Winter 1973 – Stockton, Brown Top Trailer Park

We tried to keep it together and make a pleasant home for Skip and Rene, but it wasn’t easy. One night we had a really bad argument. I said something to upset Linda, and she threw a jar of Vaseline at me. We started screaming at each other while Rene and Skip sat on the couch trying to watch TV. After about an hour the screaming died down. Linda went to the bedroom and slid the door closed. The

trailer had only two rooms and it was difficult for the combatants to find our own space to cool off in.

I sat down between Rene and Skip and gave them a hug. Rene looked up at me and asked: “Do I have to get married when I get older?” “No,” I said. “Why?” “Well, I don’t like arguing and mommies and daddies always argue and yell at each other.” I tried to explain to her that being married didn’t mean you had to argue all the time, but I was pretty sure that she was sticking with her view of marriage.

It was getting cramped in the trailer. Skip and Rene could play out in the front yard until someone drove through the trailer park past our trailer and kicked up dust. When the weather was bad they had to play inside. Doing homework was impossible at times. I would be sitting at my desk trying to study, Rene and

Skip would be playing fifteen feet away and Linda would be watching TV. It was winter so the kids had to play inside most of the time.

On a Saturday just after Christmas, I was doing my homework when I heard a knock at the door. It was Mattie Rivas, Linda’s mother. She got right to the point. “How would you guys like to move into a bigger place?”“I would love to,” I answered, “but right now this is all we can afford.” “Look, Darrell, I know you don’t like to take help from people but I have a deal for you.” She had sold her house and land out on Jack Tone Road and made enough to buy a couple of houses in town. She was going to rent one out. “It

looks great on the inside, but the outside needs a lot of work. If you agree to fix it up I’ll let you live in it for what you’re paying here.” Given our current situation, it sounded like a good offer. It was a small two bedroom house just down the street from the Bachelor Adult Bookstore. The back yard was overgrown and looked like the thicket where hobbits lived. But the house itself was huge. It was newly painted and the carpeting was new. The kids were still sharing a bedroom but at least they were in a normal house. This didn’t stop our bickering. We were two kids trying to raise two kids. It was only a matter of time.

Cleaning up the property was good therapy. I would work in the yard while Skip and Rene played in the overgrowth. Out behind the house was a corrugated metal shed. The shed proved to be a perfect place to grow marijuana. I hung some black lights from the ceiling and lined the shed with tin foil. I had never had a green thumb, but before long the shed was full of six-foot-tall plants. I invited my sister Sandra and her husband over one weekend for dinner and to sample some leaves from my “garden.” I had been working hard and I needed a little rest from school. After dinner we all went out to the garden shed and

picked a bunch of leaves. We put them on a cookie-sheet pan, dried them out and rolled them into joints. I didn’t get much homework done that weekend. Soon this became a regular ritual. Then the stress of keeping up with my classes started getting to me, so a doobie or two during the week made sense. Within three months I had to drop all my classes at Delta.

One day my Franklin High School yearbook arrived in the mail. I lit up a joint, grabbed a glass of wine and started flipping through the pages. How cool, I actually graduated from high school! So now what? I was lousy at skilled-labor jobs. I used to get Grandpa Moxley boiling mad because he would be under the car working on it and ask me for something like a seven- sixteenth box wrench. The instant I heard him yell, “Skip, bring me…” I would panic and start rummaging through his footlocker toolbox on the garage floor. I could never find what he wanted. Where I grew up a man was measured by the size of his tool box and what it had in it. If you had a robust collection of Snap-on-Brand or Craftsman tools you were at the top of your game. Maybe part of the reason I felt inadequate as a young man was that my tool box had only a few tools and they were the ones I bought at the local auto supply store 88-cents bin.

It occurred to me that since I wasn’t very good at skilled labor, maybe I should take college more seriously. Whenever I went to check on Rene and Skip, Jr. while they were asleep, I felt guilty. They always looked so peaceful, knowing in their little hearts that Dad had it all together. Dad would be a good provider. Dad wouldn’t let them grow up poor. The image of Skip sitting on the couch imitating me as I did my homework, underlining passages, drawing circles around paragraphs and dog-earing pages, made me smile. I didn’t want him to imitate me smoking weed. One night I just quit.

It wasn’t easy. Most of my relatives were stoners. At Christmas time thirty or forty family members would gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the annual gift exchange and Christmas dinner. There was always a room set aside for getting high. It was tough to avoid that room. But then I would talk to some my cousins about their money difficulties and how their unemployment checks didn’t even cover their dope costs and their regular bills. Suddenly it got a lot easier.

My family may have not been rich but there was a lot of love. One day when my cousin Richard found out I was walking three miles each way to attend Delta Junior College he called to ask if I was going to be home. A few minutes later I looked out the front window to see Richard (“Rick”) getting out of his pickup. As I walked out to greet him he was pushing a ten-speed bike up my driveway. “Here ,Skip. This is for you.” As he got back in his truck he said “Be sure not to ride it over by Grandma’s house ‘cause someone there is missing one just like it.”

This is another segment of “Last Journey.” This is a book that is written by me with the help of my son SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr. He was killed by a sniper just outside of Baghdad. At the time he and I were working on a book that we planned to call “The Great Conversation.” He was conflicted about having to kill men or be killed. He was a philosopher and he had difficulty reconciling his mission as a combat soldier with the teachings of the great philosophers. This is except 4. We will be putting excerpts on this blog for the entire book so we estimate there will be about 100 excerpts.

The girl I got pregnant, Linda Sanchez, was Darrell Jr’s mom. I remember her being the only kid at school who drove a car that was one color and didn’t have any part of it painted with primer. She wasn’t supposed to be going to Franklin High School in Stockton because she lived in Lodi. Her mom was single and worked in Stockton so Linda was dropped off at her Grandma Zuniga’s who lived close to the school. We met in our junior year. Linda’s mom was always at work so we spent more time at her big house out in the country than we did in school. Days at her house with raging hormones and no parents around created the perfect setting for her getting pregnant.
Grandpa wasn’t too happy when he found out. He felt a lot of his troubles in life were related to his being an Indian in a white man’s world. He was proud to be part of the Ottawa Nation, and looked just like the Indian on the face of a buffalo nickel. He didn’t have much use for anyone of color and it bothered him that I would have a Mexican girlfriend.

“Are you telling me that you couldn’t find a decent white girl ?” screamed Grandpa Moxley. He got his crippled legs under him, grabbed his cane and pushed himself up. His legs had been frozen into a sitting position from his years of severe arthritis. As he hobbled toward my bedroom door he turned and said, “You’re messing up bad. I had hoped that you could have moved up from busboy to fry cook.” He shook his head. “You’re just like your no-account dad. He never was anything and never will be and neither will you.” He gave me a month to move out.
I had to get permission from the Juvenile Justice Department in San Joaquin County to set up a household with Linda. Since we were both under age we had to demonstrate to the assigned probation officer that I had a job and a plan to finish high school. We were married in July 1969.

I was working full time as a dishwasher and completing my junior year of high school. It was hard to find a place we could afford to rent and it was even harder to convince any landlord to rent to a sixteen-year-old boy who looked fourteen. I hadn’t even begun to shave.

We finally found a place to rent. The Brown Top Trailer Park was a place where only desperate people lived. There were about thirty trailers in the park. In the center of the park was where the two washer-and-dryers were located. Next to the laundry was a trash bin that was always overflowing with garbage and liquor bottles. Our little eight-foot-by-twenty-foot trailer was located across from the garbage bins. On hot days the sound of the buzzing flies would almost drown out the noise of the busy road that was about twenty feet from our trailer. Behind the trailer was a fence that was held up by six-foot-high weeds. The trailer was old. It had layers of tar on its roof to stop the rain from coming in, and a little two-step splintery stoop in front of the door. A dilapidated storage shed stood on the concrete slab that served as our porch. I talked the landlord into letting me sand down the splinters and paint the shed and the steps. I found a paint store, Paul Cox Studio, that sold its mixing mistakes for next to nothing. Mr. Cox gave me two quarts for free. Soon the stoop and shed were a light purple (the only mixing mistake the store manager had at the time), but at least there were no more splinters.

November 21st, 1969

Skip Rene inTub in Trailer

Rene and her future little brother, Darrell that would later be born on March 13, 1971.

I was sitting in my eleventh-grade English literature class when a runner from the attendance office came in and handed the teacher at the front of the room a note. Mr. Bentley looked directly at me. “Darrell, can you please come here for a minute?” I was so absorbed in coming up with an excuse for not having my homework assignment ready that I forgot that today was the planned due date for Skip’s older sister to be born. With a disgusted look on his face he said, “Well, Darrell, it looks like your wife is going into labor. You are excused from class.” I went back to my desk to pack up my books. “Before you leave, the attendance office wants to see you.” As I walked out of class the guys who thought they were cool gave me the “thumbs up” sign. The smart kids just looked at me and shook their heads.

When I got to the attendance office the attendance lady and my guidance counselor were in a huddle and obviously talking about me. They broke apart the instant they saw me through the glass of the office door. The attendance lady said, “Darrell, before we can officially let you off campus you have to bring back proof that your wife is in labor. You need to bring back a note from your wife’s doctor or at least from your wife.” I rushed home, had Linda write me a note and took it back to school, then ran back home and took her to the hospital. Later that day, Darlene “Rene” Griffin, Darrell Jr.’s older sister, was born. They came home two days later. Rene slept in a bassinet in the living room.

I stayed home from school for a couple of days to help Linda with Rene. Neither of us knew what we were doing. There was no glamour in midnight feedings and changing full diapers. I remember sitting up late one night thinking that if you put my and Linda’s ages together – thirty-two – it would be a good age to have a child.
Every week I went to the California National Guard offices to see how my application was going. The United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War and the National Guard didn’t get sent to Vietnam. It wasn’t the idea of fighting in Vietnam that bothered me; it was the fact that there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. I had a copy of my completed National Guard application on my headboard along with brochures for Canada. There was no way I was going to go to Vietnam and fight in Nixon’s war.

April 30, 1970 – Stockton, California – Brown Top Trailer Park

I had just gotten home after a long day at school and an afternoon shift of washing dishes at the Hoosier Inn. I was lucky to have this job. The owner, Charlie Dyer, always let me move my schedule around my school schedule. The staff was like a second family. On occasion Charlie or Mrs. Dyer would help me with my math homework.

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.

SKIP's HAMMER OF GOD DRAWING]

There will always be evil in the world and there will always be the Hammer of God (Malleus Dei).  Malleus Dei was one of my son’s favorite Latin phrases.  My son, SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr.  drew this picture when he was very young.  I still have it in my office.  On the side of his combat helmet, while serving in Iraq he wrote post tenbras lux, Latin for after darkness, light.  He was always optimistic that the Hammer of God would prevail over evil. He was killed in Iraq March 21, 2007, but he lives on in the hearts of a lot of people.

100_0121 [PHOTO #6 HELMET]A SCANNED300DPI

I will be posting weekly postings of “Last Journey – A Father and Son in Wartime” weekly for the next several weeks.  It chronicles the life of an incredible son and an incredible soldier – My son Darrell (Skip) Griffin, Jr.

LAST JOURNEY: A Father and Son in Wartime

I: Getting the News

 CEMETERY MEMORIAL

May 2007 – Los Angeles National Cemetery

DARRELL R

GRIFFIN Jr

S SGT

US ARMY

IRAQI FREEDOM

MAR 13 1971

MAR 21 2007

BSM w V PH KIA

BELOVED HUSBAND

SON AND BROTHER

I am standing at the grave of SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr., my son, reading the same words I have read every Sunday for the last month. BSM stands for Bronze Star Medal, w V means that the Bronze Star was awarded under circumstances of valor, PH stands for Purple Heart and KIA stands for killed in action. It took about a month after Skip’s death for his headstone to be carved and placed at his grave. While waiting for his headstone to arrive, the cemetery placed an index sized card in a green waterproof frame at the head of his grave. It said, SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr. KIA March 21, 2007, buried April 6, 2007. Too brief of a grave marker and too brief of a life.

Darrell’s family called him Skip; his wife, Diana, called him Darrell; and  his military comrades called him “Griff.” Not only did Skip get stuck with my complete name with a “Jr” at the end, but he also got stuck with my nickname. When he was younger he was called “Little Skip” and I was called “Big Skip.” Skip grew to be six feet, two inches and two hundred forty pounds of solid muscle. Then the family referred to him as “Big Skip” and me as “Old Skip.”

I normally come to visit Skip’s grave every Sunday before church. Kim, Skip’s mom, often comes with me. I have only missed a couple of weekends since he was buried.

The smell of his favorite incense, Nag Champa, that I just lit and placed in front of his headstone wafts in the air. I like that fragrance. He loved to burn incense in his study while he was reading books by his favorite authors such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and John Calvin. I will sometimes bring one of his favorite books and read out loud to him if no one is around.

I wrap the lighter and remaining incense and put it in the “Skip Tool Box.” This is a gardener’s small tool box that contains all the items we need when we come to visit Skip: pruning shears, paper towels and spray cleaner to wipe off the bird droppings, clippers for trimming the long grass from around the headstone, and of course incense and a lighter. I got the idea of the Skip Tool Box from watching the other families that come to visit their sons regularly. Since we come to visit Skip every week we keep the tool box in the trunk of the car.

Last Sunday I noticed that the man parking next to me had a similar tool box. He had the same basic accessories, but he also had a number of cigars in his tool box. When Skip was in Iraq, his wife and Kim used to send cigars to Skip every month. Most pictures of Skip taken in Iraq are with him smoking a cigar. I decided to buy some cigars and occasionally smoke one when I visit Skip’s grave. These small acts make me feel closer to Skip.

A lot of graves only have flowers on them for the first week. I assume many of these are the graves of soldiers with families that live out of town. Or maybe the first week is enough for most people. Skip was buried beside Christopher Dwayne Young. He did not have his headstone when we buried Skip next to him. Now his headstone reads that he was killed during Iraqi Freedom a few weeks before Skip and he was twenty-one years old. He was old enough to die for his country and old enough to have a beer if he wanted one. Since Skip was buried, another soldier, Walter Freeman, was killed on April 4, a few weeks after Skip. He was also a casualty of Iraqi Freedom. He was just a couple of months younger than Christopher.

The Los Angeles National Cemetery is a United States National Cemetery in West Los Angeles, at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Sepulveda Boulevard, and there are soldiers and their spouses buried here whose graves date back to the Civil War. Interred also are veterans from the Spanish-American war, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and other American conflicts. One of my son’s neighbors is Nicholas Porter Earp (1813-1907). He was the father of Old West lawmen Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp. Section 13 grave A- 18. There are over 85,000 soldiers and spouses buried here.

We had the option of burying Skip at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. We selected the Los Angeles Cemetery so we can visit him weekly. We have a good friend who lost her son in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2005. He was buried in a group grave at Arlington with four other soldiers who had died in the crash because they couldn’t tell which body parts belonged to which soldier. She wishes she had buried him in Los Angeles. I didn’t ask her but I was curious if she had a choice of where he was buried since he was in a group grave. Two of the other people buried in his grave are Iraqi soldiers.

Kim likes to drive to the hill in the cemetery that overlooks Skip’s grave. When we get out of the car and stand looking at his grave site from the distant hill, for an instant it is as if it didn’t really happen, as if he’s still alive.

I always expect to see a lot more graves with flowers. It seems like the same few graves always have flowers on them. Skip gets fresh flowers every weekend and so do a couple of Skip’s “neighbors.”. Kim came with me today and is placing flowers in front of Skip’s headstone in one of the little cones that the cemetery provides for this purpose. She also brought some for Christopher. Often the same bouquet of flowers that has been put on Christopher’s grave is put on Skip’s grave. We assume that it is Christopher’s family that has been bringing Skip flowers. We often reciprocate by bringing Christopher flowers. We have varied the times we come to visit Skip to see if we could meet them, but haven’t seen them yet. Even though you may see the same people at the cemetery there seems to be an unwritten rule that you don’t talk to each other. There is the normal quiet and dignified nod as you pass one another, but rarely any conversation.

We always take a photograph with our cell phone of the fresh flowers we just placed on Skip’s grave and then send it to Diana, Skip’s wife. Since she lives at Fort Lewis, Washington, and can’t visit Skip’s grave very often it seems to give her some comfort every time we send her a picture. She likes knowing we are taking care of Skip.

Besides Christopher’s family or friends sometimes putting flowers on Skip’s grave, another odd thing we have noticed is that there are often three or four new pennies, always face up, on top of Skip’s headstone. You know they are new because the “tail” side that isn’t exposed to the elements is still shiny. I have noticed this a few times on other soldiers’ headstones, but they are fairly consistently placed on Skip’s.

These are the little questions that perplex me.

There are also bigger questions.

Questions like Why did my son have to go to war? And Why did he die? And What did he die for? These seem like simple straightforward questions, but they are not. They were the subject of numerous conversations that Skip and I had over the course of several years. Philosophy, theology and politics were our favorite topics. Most fathers and sons like to go hunting and to sporting events together; they like to talk about cars. Our favorite father/son activity was to spend an entire evening talking about books – once Skip was old enough, over a bottle of Merlot. We called it The Great Conversation.

I was sixteen when Skip’s sister Rene was born and eighteen when Skip was born. I spent most of my time doing jobs like washing dishes while finishing high school and college. Because these jobs never paid very well there wasn’t much money to buy toys. A good cheap form of entertainment was for me to take Skip and Rene to the library or to buy them used books. They both loved to read.

I said goodbye to Skip and stood up to walk back to my car. I noticed that the incense had burned a hole in the little Army flag that someone had placed by Skip’s headstone. Now it says, “United States Arm.”

As I got in my car I remembered a favorite quotation of Skip’s: Of all the sorrows that afflict mankind, the most bitter is that we have consciousness of much, but yet control over nothing. – Herodotus.

SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr – KIA March 21, 2007 was an incredible soldier and an incredible son.  He was on his second tour in Iraq when a sniper’s bullet ended his life.

US New Cover

U.S. News and World Report featured him on its cover and did an 8 page story on him a few weeks after he was killed.  He and I, his dad, Darrell Griffin, Sr were working on a book that would reconcile the fact that he had to kill men and men wanted to kill him with teachings of the great philosophers.  General Petraeus allowed me to embed with his combat unit in Baghdad shortly after he was killed so I could complete the book we were working.  The original title was to be “The Great Conversation.”  After I returned from Iraq, my publisher changed the title to “Last Journey.” It tells of Darrell, Jr growing up and becoming a defender for American freedom.  In great detail it describes why he was awarded the Bronze Star For Valor.

Darrell, Jr. and his big sister, Rene were close growing up.  I married at 16 and Rene was born shortly after that.  Darrell, Jr was born a a year after that.  Since I was working my way through high school and college,, and their birth mother disappeared from their lives, we didn’t have much, but we had the most important thing – love.

Darrell, Jr and his Big Sister, Rene

Darrell, Jr. at time felt helpless fighting in Iraq.  He felt the Iraqi people were caught in the middle.  BUT, he always felt there was hope.  One of his favorite quotes was “After darkness, light.”  Here is an excerpt from his journals:

After darkness, light

Darrell, Jr. would send me pictures almost every of his various battles.  This was his way of dealing with it.  Because he truly believed “After darkness, light” he would subconsciously always include pictures of Iraqi kids, with big smiles at the end of his battle pictures.

Darrell Jr. with Irai kids

Darrell’s mom, Kim and I will always miss Darrell, Jr.  His being gone never gets easier. He always called Kim Mom so, I have never referred to her as his step mom.

Darrell, Jr. Kim and Darrell, Sr.

He loved his brothers and sisters, Christian, Sommer, Alexis and Jordan.

We all should take a moment and thank all of our men and women who have served and are serving for their service to our country.