Above, Private John Price Mason, second from right.
May 2019 – Memorial Day is about a month away, and I’m thinking about my grandfather.
Private John Price Mason did not die in the service of his country, so perhaps Veteran’s Day would be a more appropriate time to write about him. However, he was a soldier in The Great War (World War I as it was called only after World War II began). That war has a strong connection to Memorial Day because it was a Canadian soldier who penned the poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The poem inspired the tradition of wearing a red poppy on Memorial Day as a symbol of remembrance.
The only things I can remember that my grandfather ever taught me are how to whittle and dig for fishing worms. No, he didn’t leave me any profound words to live by or bequeath to me a family treasure. We just enjoyed being together. I loved him, and he loved me, and I knew it. His burial flag given to my grandmother by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs when he died in 1972 sits on the bookcase in my office.
My grandfather was 63 when I was born. (I’m 68 now. Wow, that’s a reality check!) My earliest memories picture him as old and somewhat debilitated. As far back as I can remember, he walked with a stoop and used a cane.
His poor health was the result of several things. He was shot in the leg in the Battle of Argonne Forest, the brutal Allied offensive on the Western Front that lasted 47 days and led to the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
For that injury, he received a commendation that depicted Columbia, the mythological personification of the United States, knighting her servant. Years after his death, that commendation was part of the documentation used to award him a Purple Heart. Like so many of his injured comrades, that one shot gave him problems the rest of his life. And, I’m sure a back injury sustained in the famous 1936 Tupelo tornado didn’t help.
No one seemed to know then what is obvious now – that the most significant cause in his poor health was his smoking. He rolled his own – smoking paper and Prince Albert tobacco in a can.
I collected hundreds of those classic “crimp cut” pocket-size red cylindrical cans. Surely, I can build something cool with my huge collection of cans, I thought, a bridge or tunnel for my model train. Or maybe I could invent a game in which the cans would be useful.
But the Prince refused to play. He wouldn’t stack or float or be thrown like a ball. He just stood there, smelling good in his stuffy Victorian suit, as if satisfied that one day he would bring $15-$20 per can on Ebay. Wish the Prince had divulged his monetary secret before we drug boxes of cans from the bedroom closet to the garbage.
Maybe my grandfather and I got along so well because we liked the same things: fishing when you didn’t really catch anything, riding in his old Ford pickup, the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on Friday nights featuring boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano, and Saturday afternoon live “professional” wrestling on WHBQ-TV in Memphis. Remember Sputnik Monroe and Baby Blimp? Well, probably not.
Unlike those 1950s Memphis wrestlers whose names still bring up a surprising list of Google hits, my grandfather’s name and memory are now known to only a handful of folks. But they are wonderful memories and worth pondering, especially on Memorial Day.