Although I was barely out of grade school before she died, I got to know my great-grandmother, Clara. She often stayed with my grandparents, living out of their spare room and her two suitcases before moving on to board at yet another son or daughter’s place for a few months.
Clara’s husband, James Lunsford, came home from his job as a county road worker one late winter afternoon in 1948, sat down on the couch and died; he was 70, but never knew retirement. Together, they had 10 children and a large extended family, but none of them had yet tasted much prosperity — coal miners and WPA workers and farm hands, mostly — so he just kept trying to bring home a paycheck. After Jim died, Clara lived the rest of her life as a bit of a nomad, never staying anywhere long enough to have a real home again.
I mention that story on this Veterans Day, because until not long ago, when I spoke with a Colorado cousin who is studying our family’s history, I never really thought much about the worry and tears Jim and Clara had invested in raising their family, in sending most of their boys off to war, in losing one of them who is buried in France. Together, they saw nine of their sons, sons-in-law, and grandsons wear a uniform in World War II: six serving in the European Theater, and three others headed to the Pacific.
Although I often spent time with Clara in my grandparents’ too-warm and nearly silent house, she never spoke of her husband or her boys to me, at least as far as I remember. Born in 1884, she had already lived a long tough life, and I mostly recall seeing her nestled in an armchair, darning socks, and silently grinning at my grandfather’s silliness; he was among her oldest children, a bit too young for the Great War, a bit too old for World War II.
Clara once told me about seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show when it came to Terre Haute, and about going to listen to William Howard Taft when he came to speak in Rockville for the Chautauqua in 1915. But mostly, I used to sit in the living room with her and peer through her ornate stereoscope, which eventually ended up in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. It was hard to imagine then that she had ever been young, particularly as I observed her wrinkled eyes as they were magnified through her wiry gold eyeglasses; sometimes, the only sound in the house was the solitary tick of an ancient mantle clock.
Even then, I think I saw Clara’s life as a sort of open history book, but one not turned to the pages about the war, nor including the photo of her long-gone husband, or one that mentioned the son who never came home, ever. Nobody in the family, really, spoke of those things.
I have written before about Albert, one of her youngest boys. Good looking and popular, he was killed by a German fighter jet somewhere between Oberhoffen and Hagenau, France, in January 1945. In my mind, I see Jim and Clara at their kitchen table in the half-light of evening, staring at the cable informing them of Albert’s death, whether that is the way it happened or not. However it went, the message arrived a day or so before the last of Albert’s letters came to them in the mail. In it, he spoke of how good it had been to see his younger brother, Bob, just a day or two before; Bob even included a few lines in the letter himself.
Although I saw my Uncle Bob at family reunions and on fishing trips and knew he had been to war, too, I didn’t know that he was the first of his family to go to the service. He was a corporal in the Army, a chain-smoking lineman in a wire section who came home to be an electrician. He died at 59, and even though he never spoke of the war to me — as tight-lipped as his mother, I guess — I feel that he was, perhaps, the most affected by it; I’m not sure why.
Jim and Clara also watched as son Charles William — we called him Will — went off to Europe. He fought in the 85th Mountain Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, in Italy. Will was one of the most soft-spoken men I ever met, and my grandfather often took me up to the garage Will owned in Kingman. He was a mechanic, and I remember being most impressed with how he had converted a big Chrysler of his to LP gas. It never really registered with me then that my grandfather was 15 years older than Will.
A fourth brother went to war, too. Tom, the youngest, left high school for the Navy; he became an aviation mechanic and, fortunately, saw no action. Tom lived well into his 90s. Until I did a little digging for this story, I had no idea that his middle name was Clara’s maiden name, as if she had saved it for the last child.
Jim and Clara also watched son-in-law, Everett Allen, leave for military service. My great-uncle saw action in the Rhineland from June 1944 through the end of the war, something I wouldn’t have considered probable when I went to his home in eastern Clay County to fish in Deer Creek with my grandfather. But now, I think I understand a little more why Everett sought a quiet life as a farmer, and I can see him still, sitting in his “front room,” reading the newspaper, a smoldering pipe clamped in his teeth.
Four grandsons also went to war. William Albert “Bill” Sneddon was in the Army Air Corps, a flight engineer and top turret gunner in a B-24 “Liberator” over Italy; he survived 33 missions. His cousin, Lloyd Howard Allen, was a radio operator and gunner in a B-17 “Flying Fortress” and he flew terrifying nighttime missions over Germany in 1944 and 1945. He was two years younger than Bill, but they died in the same year.
I don’t think I ever met another of Jim and Clara's grandsons, Robert “Gene” Allen. He was a navigator and radio operator on a torpedo bomber that flew off the decks of the aircraft carrier, Cowpens, in the Pacific Theater. He was two years older than his cousin, Kenneth Wayne Sneddon, who was a private in the 5th Cavalry Division, an Army mortar gunner, but the war was pretty well over by the time he got to the Pacific, and luckily so, for like Will, he was training for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. It is his son, Jeff, who helped me put this story in order.
I wrote earlier that I hadn’t given much thought before about the fear and anxiety that my great-grandparents must have had with their loved ones being in that terrible war, about the tragic loss they suffered. But as time passes, perhaps I’ve learned a little more about the important things in life, and I understand their sleepless nights and prayers and worries.
Jim and Clara gave the country their most precious possession: their boys, as did so many millions of other parents. Their sacrifice is what Veterans Day is about, too.