Denise K. Lane
A HERO’S LEGACY
Upon looking in the old trunk for a death certificate, my son Dan handed an old folded American Flag to me, and a gold plaque fell from it to the floor. When he was picking it up, I saw it was engraved with the name Marvin E. Stanley, and listing the medals my dad had received from participation in World War II. “I don’t know why you never used this, Mom,” he said as he handed it to me along with some newspaper clippings. “You could have had a full ride, free of charge, on those Purple Hearts, and there are two of them.” Dan knew about military benefits and procedures, being a Captain himself. As I looked at him in the dimly lit old garage, I could see the resemblance to my father, being short and stocky in build, always standing very straight with a military attitude of importance.
“It’s nothing to me except that Dad was shot in the back and the two bullets were carried in his heart his whole life. I guess that he could have been killed in the war.” I looked at the shiny old plaque and shrugged, it all happened before I was born.
“You don’t see? You could have had a college education, exclusive, at the expense of the government,” Dan persisted. “They paid for education for children of war veterans wounded or killed in action. Grandpa never provided you with much else, but inadvertently, he did provide you with this. You just either didn’t know it was available or just didn’t use it. The bottom line is he did a great service for our country, even though I don’t know the exact cause for his wounds, but he can still do something for you, as well as your brothers and sisters, if you are interested.”
He had touched so lightly on those words, “Grandpa never provided--” and no matter how long ago it had been, the shameful mark of being a Stanley was always on me. I have tried to avoid it, but the inference of the way I was raised was always there. There were nine children in the original family before my mother divorced him, and we had no material possessions like other families. We had to garden to raise our own food, canned most of it in jars, dried some of it, and the rest was stored in a dark cellar for cold Indiana winters. Our food was cooked by my poor mother on kerosene stove, and wood and coal were our means of heat. We pumped water by hand and carried it for cooking, and also for washing and bathing for a family of eleven. My brothers and sisters I was raised in the 1940’s and 1950”s. We had no electricity, no television set to sit in front of in the evenings like other families, and we wore handed down clothing from anyone who wanted to discard them.
I went through twelve years of school without books, borrowing them just to get my grades. I’ve often wondered how well I would have done academically if I’d had them. I was afraid to walk down the street on my way home from school, because of some of the older children calling insults to me of “white trash”, and proposing all kinds of lewd actions that I could participate with them. I had worked all my adult life to overcome the feelings that I had while growing up.
On top of all that, Dad had a reputation for womanizing when he was playing music in the clubs and bars. You can imagine what a black mark that left on all of us in a small Wesleyan town; not to mention that the other women chasing him because he was so talented and good looking broke my mother’s heart. “That Marvin could always charm the fleas off a dog’s back,” my Grandmother Stanley always said. His mother always made excuses for him, or tried to avoid situations by making light of whatever was said about him. I found that it was best not to discuss anything unpleasant about him with her.
Thinking back, I was told that my father had a good job before the war. But when he returned to the States, still wounded, Warner Gear and Johns Manville who had employed him – – had modernized to the point that if you couldn’t pass the physical, you didn’t have a job. Specialists at the New York hospital where he had been flown from the Philippine war zone couldn’t remove the bullets received in action from his heart. He carried them all his life, and in the end, the scar tissue surrounding them built up so much pressure that it backed up the blood flow in his body enough to cause an aneurysm. It finally burst, dumping all the blood in his body into his stomach in a matter of minutes, ending his life at the age of fifty-nine years. Therefore, the nine children who were born to him by my mother, the four children to him and his second wife, and the baby that was born with a woman friend right before his death, had a very hard time financially and socially. We were poor, and the work that he had to do in order to survive in a post war society was much more physically strenuous than the work in the factory. He maintained the cemeteries in the Summitville and Alexandria, areas, digging graves by hand, and mowing and maintaining the mass of grass that grew each year, also pouring foundations of cement and setting the tombstones. His familiar words echoed through my mind of the times that I would go there to visit him, and he would talk about having to do that kind of work, “This is living in purgatory for the all people I had to kill in the war.” To my knowledge that is all that I ever remembered hearing him say about what he had to do in the war.
My dad’s only easy job was music, even though it had its drawbacks. Maybe, that was the only area in which I had learned to admire him. We always had a piano, a banjo, and an accordion, and a few other musical instruments on which he played his music at home, and practiced it with his band. The music came to him naturally, never having had a lesson that I ever knew of; yet he could play every instrument in his band when I was a small girl. He specialized in the piano, organ, and the accordion, but sometimes when he was performing, he would move over during the music and play the drums; take the trumpet or Saxophone, and blow his heart out; and I loved to hear him on the guitar and especially when he was playing the banjo. As he played, at times he would become so completely submersed in the music, as if his soul and the music were one, that nothing outside could penetrate his solitude. When entertaining, if anyone asked him if he knew a song, he’d say, “You hum it, and I’ll play it.” As he grew older, he only played the American Legion Calliope in parades and entertained in piano bars around the area, such as the International Harvester Club in Indianapolis. The Travel Lodge and the Roberts Hotel in Muncie, and the 500 Club in Noblesville. They were just a few of the spots that he frequented as a musician.
Considering all of that, the truth was that he was a simple, but complex man with many facets, and one could see only one side at time. He was a womanizer, and he always had more than one family going at a time. I have brothers and sisters starting to surface and others that I haven’t even met. He made no secret of it, either. When asking my stepmother about how she coped with this, Mary said, “I always thought Marvin felt that he was unlovable, only I just could never understand what could have happened to him to make him feel that way. Maybe all the extra sex he required was just a way to try to prove to himself that he was.”
Then there are other sides to his complexity. Dad was honest to the point of being blunt, and he would not accept less than that from his children. On the other hand, he could tell a tall tale and have us believing every word of it. Then there were many times that he would lose his temper and resort to physical violence, and the family bore most of the blunt of it. I had gone to junior high school as a young teenager with both eyes blacked from being beat up by him for liking a boy. One of my brothers run away from home after I witnessed a violent ordeal between them. The worst of the violence was aimed at my mother, for many times she was physically abused because of his anger.
These memories that had flooded back to me were very depressing, and I just needed to take care of the situation at hand. If he had left us a legacy, I still wasn’t sure just what it was. “I don’t know if any of this has anything to do with me.” I insisted to my son. I just wanted to find the death certificate, and put the depressing memories away.
Dan held his ground. “I think that if you check with the Veterans Affairs and register this, you will find that you could still use this, and so could your brothers and sisters. You know, I could take this list of medals to the base to someone there that could make you a display of them for you to hang up at home. And, I know that you would have liked to have had a better education, you read books and write all the time,” he added thoughtfully.
“Dan, what you don’t realize is that I have been married and widowed, and married and divorced. Look at my age. I’m a grandmother, for Pete’s sake. I’m too old to go back to school.” I protested, knowing deep inside I had always had wanted a better education. During most of my adult years, I have played around with writing and poetry, and yes, even getting published a couple of times. But I lacked the educational credentials to build a proper portfolio to enhance my work, not mention to perfect and refine my skills.
I could smell the musty tinge of odor that develops over a long period of time on stored articles as I started looking through the clippings that lay under the medal boxes. One was from the Summitville Sun with an editorial titled “DID YOU KNOW?” It was written shortly after Dad’s death in 1980 and inspired by an old newspaper clipping from Alexandria, Indiana, dated November 1945. The article said that Ross Shores, a neighbor from where I was raised, brought it in. I didn’t remember seeing it prior to that time, and I read the story to Dan. It was a recap of Dad’s war medals, and mentioned the fact that he was a member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign wars. The Editorial was written by Mary Johnson, Editor of the Summitville Sun, and it elaborated on what a hero my father had been.
Dan proceeded to dig through the various items, and commented as they were laid aside. Then we both examined the last items together.
At the bottom of the trunk was faded yellowed papers stapled together, with large print across the top: “RESTRICTED”, GENERAL ORDERS from the Headquarters 127th Infantry, A.P.O. # 32, c/o Postmaster, San Francisco, CA. Awards of the PURPLE HEART, AWARDS OF THE OAK LEAF CLUSTER II. On another form that was similar were awards to all the men in his unit for THE SILVER STAR; AWARDS OF THE BRONZE STAR MEDAL, and Award of THE OAK LEAF CLUSTER IV. The orders named each man and what he had done in action in order to receive the award. I remembered as a child I would play with these medals, dressing up like a famous queen and they were my jewels; or I would put on Dad’s old soldier hat and pretend to be a famous general that everyone had to salute. Sometimes Dad would catch me and request that I put them back in their navy blue velvet lined boxes so that they wouldn’t get lost. I never considered what had occurred to him and so many others for him to get them.
When I read to the bottom of the first page, I saw the print: “Private First Class Marvin E. Stanley, (35842527), Infantry, United states Army: For gallantry in action near the Villa Verde Trail, Luzon, Philippine Islands, on 24 April 1945. A machine gun covering the advance of our infantry on the trail below received heavy and direct fire from the Japanese emplacements, and after the gunner had been wounded it became necessary to remove the weapon to save it from capture by the enemy. After two men had been wounded in an attempt to displace the machine gun, Private Stanley crawled under a veritable hail of bullets to the weapon and withdrew it just before a group of enemy reached the position. This courageous action of Private Stanley prevented the machine gun from being turned against our own troops. Home address: Mrs. Marvin E. Stanley, (Wife), 617 E Adams Street, Alexandria, Indiana.”
The second set of papers just gave his military information and stated: “for wounds received in action.” Tears stung my eyes as I was overcome with the emotion that I had not felt for him, not even at the time of his death. I had always known that he had been critically wounded, but had never known that it had been for the unselfish act of self – sacrifice in order to save the all of the men that had fought at his side, who later were able to return home to their families to have children and grandchildren. The descendents of all those men probably became doctors, nurses, teachers, and started business, or became other responsible citizens to improve our society. From a military standpoint, he probably could have changed the outcome of that part of the war by removing a machine gun that could have wiped out the whole unit, and many other units that would be sent, if they were destroyed, in order to defend that position.
For some reason, I took the papers back to my house. Later that week, a guest in my home, Harold Slate, who is a retired captain of the United States Army looked at the two colorful PURPLE HEART, the other medal certificates, and the PRESIDENTIAL CITATION that I had spread across the table top. He exclaimed, “This is big, do you know that? Big! This is a hero!”
“Yes, I am finding that out.” I told him, feeling secretly very proud of my dad for the first time in my life.
When I got a chance to talk all this over with my mother she said reluctantly, “He almost never discussed the war with me. After he became a Sergeant, he was probably conditioned not to discuss the matter. The only thing he ever told me was; ‘I was ordered to shoot all prisoners. I told the captain I really didn’t want to do that. So I was told to give the prisoners all my and my men’s food rations, so that we wouldn’t get killed for them while we were sleeping. Then the Captain shouted at him, ‘They’re going to try to kill you anyway, Sergeant, first chance they get. Kill them, Soldier. Consider that an order.’ After that, your dad just clammed up, he never wrote me about anything else that happened. When he came home, he never wanted to discuss the war in any terms. I tried never to bring it up to him again. He would have bad dreams, and night sweats, trembling and shaking while screaming as though he were still there. You do realize, I hope, that in those days there was no counseling available for the soldiers who came back. They just had to bury their fears, forget or submerge their anger because of the many vicious things were demanded of them, where it wouldn’t resurface. The just had to get busy with their lives and try to forget. Even though he didn’t discuss the war, I don’t think he ever completely got past the nightmares.”
She looked at me as if she had already said too much. “That is all that you need to know,” she finished, dismissing the subject. I already knew that I would not get any more information from my mother. She did not like to discuss him at all. She had made a new life, with someone that loves and cares for her. It was better for me not to ask any more questions.
I never did find the death certificate. But, I found my hero, the hero of his platoon, and of the American people. I understand that because of all the mental anguish he had endured because of his heroic action, he left a legacy of American lives to carry on generation after generation. I really think that he deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is given only to a chosen few. Most of all, I found the peace of acceptance, that comes with the maturity of understanding, that I had needed all those years. And thanks to the insistence of my fine young man, who is a pilot and a now a Major serving our country, and to the Veteran’s Benefits for one with two Purple Hearts, for through the legacy of my father, I have found my education while attending Indiana University.
©Copyright October 1999 by Denise K. Lane