My Grandfather's Unmarked Grave
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
By Chris Dickens
The author writes about Kentucky history, rock ’n’ roll and horse racing, among other things.
I found my grandfather’s grave in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I’d been living out of my truck for about a year, researching my family’s fragmented story, when I saw it, the final resting place of a U.S. war veteran. It had gone so unnoticed for the past 30 years the groundskeepers had even stopped mowing around it. It was a 112-degree day in August 2012 and the woman from the cemetery office was sweating as badly as I was. “Who took his headstone?” I asked. But before the words were out, I knew he’d never had one.
John Gluyas Pascoe went by Jack, but in the one year I knew him we called him Grandaddy. He was born on Nov. 11, 1916, in Fresno, California, and grew up the son of a widowed, Depression-era accountant who moved around in search of steady work. When Jack turned 19, he joined the Navy. He was first stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, where he met my grandmother Dorothy.
In 1981, eight years after Dorothy died, I was 6, and Jack came to live with us. He shared a room with my brothers in our cramped house in Evansville, Indiana. His jet-black hair was buzzed short, his beard long. He wore cardigan sweaters year-round and had sneezing fits on the porch that made him angry. He taught me to dribble a basketball and once took us all out for steak dinner after my brothers and I got in trouble for tossing Legos at him as he slept. But what I remember most about Grandaddy is that he’d listen to jazz, all day, on the radio: Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Glenn Miller.
My childhood, like Jack’s, was one of constant moving, though for different reasons. My father, an unstable brick mason, couldn’t sit still. Our next move was to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we all squatted on an abandoned dairy farm. It rained for months straight, during which my dad couldn’t work. Strapped for money, my father was making unilateral decisions. Next up: Tampa, Florida. We’d already left behind the broken-down truck that held most of our belongings, including every family photo taken up till then, and set our dog, Billie, loose in a park.
I don’t know how much of the decision for Jack to stay was his own, but I know that our last extra mouth to feed was by then a cranky alcoholic, and that in Tampa we’d spend months living in cars and homeless shelters. But Jack didn’t know anyone in Tulsa when we left, and he died in a flophouse the next year, in 1983 — 66 years old, in a town he had no reason to be in.
So I did what any sane person would do: I began faxing the form every morning and every afternoon, at exactly the same times.
Thirty-two years later, I found his obituary on microfilm in the Tulsa City-County Library. It was less than glowing.
PASCOE, John G. Jr., 66, of 739 N. Main St., died Monday. Moore’s Eastlawn.
No mention of his family. No mention of military service.
I drove to the cemetery. Hovering over his unmarked grave, faint from the heat, I vowed to get him a headstone.
First, though, I needed to obtain his military records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in St. Louis. Little did I realize it would take two frustrating years of correspondence — or lack thereof — with NARA to do so. I’d downloaded the VA Form 40-1330 and filled out Jack’s name and Social Security number, but by boxes 6a and 6b (periods of active military duty) I was stumped. The form also asked for his service number, highest rank attained. I called my mother, but she knew none of this. She also hadn’t realized that the stone she and her siblings ordered in 1983 had never come.
I lost count at some point, but I must’ve sent the same request-for-information form no fewer than 10 times — through NARA’s website, by post, by fax. If I’d had a carrier pigeon, I would have tried it. I sent it so many times for the simple reason that the agency always claimed not to have received it. For a place that calls itself an archive, it acted an awful lot like a black hole, where my requests went, never to be seen again.
A couple of months ago, I started thinking about Veterans Day. I had grand plans to drive back to Tulsa to deliver a shiny new headstone to Jack’s grave. But still without the proper records to do so, my frustration peaked. So I did what any sane person would do: I began faxing the form every morning and every afternoon, at exactly the same times. After three days of this carpet-bombing tactic, a response. Miraculously, my request had been received.
In writing this piece, I asked NARA for a comment. In less than 24 hours, I was told that it receives 4,000 to 5,000 requests a day, half from veterans seeking military documentation. OK, that’s a lot of requests. Still, I’m disheartened that it takes such time, energy and tenacity to find out about a loved one’s service to this country.
Finally, a week ago, my sister, who gets my mail these days, texted that she’d received the long-awaited package, a manila envelope with Jack’s military service records inside, and asked me for my current mailing address. And then — after two years trying to get my hands on these documents — I somehow sent her the wrong street name.
So, without them, here’s all I know about my grandfather’s service:
Jack served in World War II as an electrician and a radio man aboard several ships, some deployed to active war zones: the USS J. Fred Talbott, the destroyer USS Simpson, the General J.C. Breckinridge and the USS Tangier. He boarded the Tangier in Australia to support Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s advances up the back of New Guinea, and then the Tangier went on to perform air-sea rescues in support of airstrikes in the Philippines. I don’t know what Jack’s involvement was exactly. And I won’t, until that envelope makes its way back to my sister’s house, and eventually to me.
My mother tells me that my grandfather could be generous and, despite his crankiness, even funny. My aunt Gayle tells me he was smart and quiet, and distant. Another aunt sent me a picture that shows him goofing off on roller skates. For most of his life he drank like the sailor he was.
No matter who he was, he deserves to be remembered for his life, for his service. On this day, especially. Next Nov. 11, he’ll have a headstone, if I have to carve it myself. I’d like it to say, right at the top, “Jack Pascoe, Radio Man.”