A few years ago, I was sitting at my parents’ breakfast table. My Dad (then 92 years old) looked at me and said, “Remember how you used to be embarrassed you had such ‘old’ parents?” I chuckled as I replied, “You are still old!” What I left unsaid, though, is that I am not at all ashamed of my Dad, but rather, he is my personal hero.
Boomer or Gen X’er? It really doesn’t matter.
I didn’t know until I heard it on National Public Radio, but I am considered a “baby boomer.” I always thought I was too young to be included in that group—though I always believed my older brothers and sister were “Boomers!” Indeed, I am the youngest of five children, born to parents who grew up during the Great Depression, so even though I hang on the fringe of the “Baby Boomer” age group, I am “one of them.” Technically, I suppose I could claim membership in “Generation X,” as well, since demographers, historians and commentators use beginning birth dates from the early 1960s through the early 1980s as the parameter.
None of this, though, is all that important to me. I am proud to call myself a “son of the greatest generation,” and in particular, of Milt and Helen Graf.
Growing up as the “youngest of the Graf boys” (there were four of us in addition to my sister) had its privileges. When we went hunting, I usually tagged along with Dad as my brothers struck out on their own paths. When we went fishing, I sat alongside Dad after my brothers found their own fishing holes. And when we went for long walks, it was me who got to ride back on Dad’s shoulders after my little legs tired out.
Military Historian: How did that happen?
In the past decade or so, I have thought a lot about what motivates a military collector. Most of us in the hobby can recite a practiced litany that includes, “To honor those who served” or something based on the explanation of “I was always interested in history…” But where did it begin? Where did it begin for me?
It has always disturbed my partner how much of my youth I can recall. “You really hang onto the past!” she will exclaim when frustrated by yet another story that begins with, “When I was a kid…”
The truth of the matter is, I do remember a lot of my youth. The time leading up to when I became about 12 years old were probably the very best years of my life: All of my brothers and sister, my Grandmother, my parents, and I lived in the home my great-grandmother built. We lived in a small town where my Dad owned one of three grocery stores, and my mom was one of a few high school math teachers. It was pretty darn idyllic, so yeah, I do remember a lot of those years!
So, when thinking about what motivated me to collect militaria and dedicate my life to the study of military history, I try to tap into these early memories to find the seed that was planted. I suspect many share a similar path.
Dad Led the Way
Allow me to reiterate, Dad was a WWII veteran. He made three attempts to enlist (turned down each time due to eyesight) before he was drafted in 1942. From Fort Snelling, Minn., he was sent to Camp Carson, Colo., where he became a military policeman. After it was announced a new camp would be built in the Rocky Mountains near Leadville, Colo., Dad was assigned to the Detached Company of Military Policeman assigned to Camp Hale. When he got there, it was pretty much a muddy plateau of hastily constructed boardwalks and cement piers on which barracks would be built.
Over the next few of years, he rose to the rank of First Sergeant at Camp Hale before he was transferred to Camp Lewis, in Washington, and assigned to an infantry company in the 104th Division. The 104th had just returned to the U.S. and was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the War finally ended. Though he served from 1942 until the end of the War, he was fortunate to have never left the States.
Like so many WWII veterans, Dad didn’t waste any time to marry his wartime sweetheart after he was discharged. Though they tied the knot in California (Dad says, “I chased your mother to the Pacific Ocean and gave her a choice: Marry me or jump in. Since she couldn’t swim, she chose the former”), they resettled in Minnesota. Within a few years, they began their family.
By the time I came along, the War was in Dad’s distant past. As for so many veterans, the training and the memories were strong however.
Having four boys in the house, I suppose he looked for a variety of ways to connect with his sons. Besides taking us hunting and fishing and teaching us to shoot photographs, skills he had honed before the war, he would invariably fall back to his experiences of keeping a company of soldiers in line.
“Inspection of arms” after cleaning our rifles was a regular ritual in our home. No one went to bed after a day of hunting or target shooting before they marched up to the couch where Dad could usually be found reading a book, and present their weapon for inspection.
“Inspection of ears” was a routine we followed after Saturday night baths. It was as much a joke as it was a practical chore, but the five kids would line up, shoulder to shoulder and get the once over before we could share popcorn and some television.
Dad taught us all the “proper way to salute” though we only used the skill when wanting to rebel against some unwanted work order he or Mom had issued. Those snapped salutes were usually followed by a hasty retreat before Mom’s weapon-of-choice, a wet washcloth, or Dad’s—an open hand—could find their target on our backsides.
We grew up in the era of really good war movies, and in our home, there was no concern about “PG-13” or “R” ratings when it came to these. The whole family would sit together in the living room to watch, “The Longest Day,” “Battleground,” “12-O’clock High” or “The Battle of Britain.” After the movie, we would bombard Dad with questions “about the war.” Every time, he would tell us, “There is nothing glamorous about war.”
While I personally understood his meaning, I knew that military stuff provided a firm connection with my Dad. When I drew pictures, they were of battle scenes, Confederate cavalry troopers or tall-masted warships battling in deadly duels. As much fun as they were to draw (complete with sound effects as I created each drawing), the real satisfaction came when I showed them to my Dad. He would comment on the details or listen as I explained the tactics. After giving me the desired praise, however, he would remind me, “There is nothing glamorous about war.”
Sometimes, on a Saturday afternoon, he would call home from our store and ask, “What do you kids want to do after supper?” We would argue among ourselves, trying to decide whether we wanted him to show us how to throw grenades, use a bayonet or maybe blow up something in the sandbox with one of the M-80s that resided in a coffee can in the old barn on our property (one of our favorite activities, but we instinctively knew we could only play that card once in a great while).
When the dishes from supper were all washed, Dad and the five kids would go out to the backyard where we would pursue whatever the choice was. “Grenade throwing” was taught using lumps of sand from the sandbox—they “blew up” nicely in the yard when they hit. “Bayonet drill” involved charging with a rifle-long stick at a burlap bag full of gunny sacks tied to the clothesline. And blowing up stuff…well, for now, let me just say there was never a shortage of firecrackers in our home—but that is another story!
As all of Dad and Mom’s kids grew older, each one developed their own particular interests. The oldest became a skilled woodworker—something Dad taught him to do in our basement. The next one became a chemist—something both Dad and Mom shared through the chemistry set they supplied and the supervision they gave. The third oldest was a fine hunter and sportsman, a skill he continues to pursue as well as teach to others. The fourth oldest, was the tinkerer and the photographer. Days, weeks and months in Dad’s old darkroom prepared him for a career in medical photography and engineering.
And the youngest—the “baby” of the family? Well, he has enjoyed the career of a lifetime, working in the history profession. First as a museum professional and then as a writer, I am privileged to be the editor of two very fine magazines, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine. Even though I would say to my Dad, “I am the luckiest guy in the world to be doing what I am doing,” he usually jabbed back at me, “When are you going to get a real job?”
Maybe getting older softens a kid’s reaction. Or maybe that happens after our parents slip away. You see, Dad's not around anymore to spar with me. So, in those quiet moments when I think of him, I simply smile and say to myself, “Yeah, I had a lot to learn back then.”
Happy Father’s Day,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine