Sunday, May 29, 2005


Memorial Day Tribute to Uncle Tip

In my family, making a career out of the military is a thing of the past. My father was a teacher and a student when he was lucky enough not to get drafted. My brothers also went to college with little desire, it seemed, to wear camouflage for any more than a fashion statement. Me? No thanks. In other generations, it was a more common sacrifice. My adopted grandfather was in the Philippines and other locales in WWII. He said he never saw any combat, but he was also very quiet about those years, so I was never sure what he participated in and what he didn’t. My other grandfather too joined the service. He is also rather hush hush on the experience. I have a great uncle who, as he felt he may be entering the sunset of his life, wrote an account of his life experience, spending a great deal of time discussing his Naval career. What struck me about his accounting of those years was his very obvious listing of the many times he escaped death.
As a recent (1941) graduate of the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering, he entered the Navy at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory to study radar with the British Navy. Admiral Chester Nimitz, then Chief of Personnel, was the one who signed his orders for that assignment. (Though he notes Nimitz as Chief of Personnel, Nimitz’s biography lists that year’s title as Admiral.) It seems terribly interesting that my uncle was in the company of people who have aircraft carriers named after them. Once he arrived and could no longer, given the time frame, attend radar school, a Captain he knew assigned him to the Naval Attache as a Naval Observer in underwater ordinance. Following that, he was sent to Washington to monitor manufacturing of mines, depth charges, and torpedoes. His interests soon turned to sea duty. He mentions the USS Harder being a sub he requested orders for, but was turned down. He was really upset that a desk mate was assigned to it. He simply states that she was lost somewhere in the China Sea.
He was then assigned to the USS Mingo, a sub he had visited before. He did two successful patrols. In the next patrol, the officer who replaced him and another Kentuckian were washed overboard. Among a variety of other assignments and exciting times in the service, he was released from active duty in ’46 with the rank of Lt. Cmdr., USNR.
Another passage in his “Life and Times” is a telling one. Upon his return to civilian life, he took a couple of jobs, trying to find a fitting place. The second of these occupations was again at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory. The Civil Service Commission, upon his submission of his experience, granted a P-1 rating. His supervisor resubmitted his experience as only a supervisor could, raising his rating to a P-3 Electrical Engineer. Uncle Tip says, “I could not see a lifetime in government where advancement was dependent on one’s ability to blow one’s horn”. He then resigned.
In the summer of 1952, he started his own engineering firm in Lexington, Ky. with a man from the very small town that part of my family is from. Alongside a very busy engineering career, he was also active in the Naval Reserve until 1967 with a ranking of Commander.
He sold his stake in that business that he grew by hand in 1982, about the time I met him for the first time. Uncle Tip is a pretty normal guy, a golf lover, a hunter, a fisherman, and an avid hiker as a youngster. There is, however, more to him than his time in the Navy or his brilliant civilian career. He served gratis as agent for a $20 million design and construction of the Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children in Lexington, Ky. He also served on the Board of Governors there. What those things don’t tell you is that he spent every Christmas morning there for years, and possibly still does. Giving up such special days to hand out gifts or just to be a part of an experience that would mean a lot more to someone else than yourself is quite amazing. I know I don’t do it, but I just simply revere people who do. What these things also don’t tell you is where Uncle Tip is today, like he has been for years and years on Memorial Day. He is on a hilltop cemetery, or will be in the next couple of hours, planting small flowers on the graves of lost loved ones. His brittle body on all fours, digging a small hole to plant the geraniums or pansies he picked up at the local nursery and carted to this very small Kentucky town that he used to know so well. Last year, in fact, he stood and listened to a long eulogy on this day for his sister we lost last year. After the long-winded preacher spoke his piece, her ashes were spread, and back to digging Uncle Tip went. Now, in his eighties, the five siblings are to two, him and my grandmother. This is the one day of the year they see each other, and it has been that way, with few exceptions for most of my life. He is private, quiet and knows that if she needs him she will call.
When I heard he wrote about his life, I wrote a letter to him asking for a copy. He obliged, and I have cherished his generosity. His life, especially the early years were not easy. He was a Depression era kid whose mother died early in his life. His father had a job, which was better than most, but they still did without. His sister was shot in the head by a boy just released from a mental facility in 1935. My grandmother was witness to it. He had to earn and borrow to get into and through college. He has been very blessed as he grew older, but early life for the children of that family was difficult.
On Memorial Day, especially with so many of our men and women on duty for us, I think of service people past and present. I also think, though, of those close to me who represent that kind of service we should all strive for, the kind that puts you in the company of hospitalized children on cold Christmas mornings and puts you in the company of disadvantaged youth through Big Brothers-Big Sisters on random afternoons. It’s amazing that a seven page, double-spaced “Life and Times” could be so interesting. Maybe Uncle Tip’s interesting life can be a lesson to us all.

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