Veterans' Day (Obs)
Updated: Nov 13, 2018
Over the weekend, most of the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. In the U.S., November 11th used to be Armistice Day - specifically dedicated to marking the end of a specific war - but from 1954 onward it became Veterans' Day. On this day we honor all military veterans (Memorial Day, in May, is focused on honoring military personnel who died while serving). As the 11th fell on a Sunday this year, today's the federal holiday.
I like Veterans' Day. I'm related, by blood or by marriage, to an awful lot of them. Men and women in my family have served in peacetime and in pretty much every major conflict since the start of the 20th Century. My father's Uncle Gino, whom I remember mainly as a stooped, soft-spoken man tending sunflowers, was a bona-fide war hero who landed with the first wave on D-Day and was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Battle of the Bulge. He's even in Tom Brokaw's book, if that is your thing.
My dad himself, not so much: he was slightly too young and too crooked of spine to serve in Vietnam. But both his parents served in WWII, and they're the ones I want to talk about.
My grandfather Nicholas was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Eve 1921. His parents had only recently arrived in the U.S. from Italy, leaving their toddler daughter behind with relatives. It's not clear whether my great-grandfather Egisto was in hot water with the Fascists at the time, but given his later heavy involvement with unions, specifically the United Mine Workers, it's possible he had inconvenient political views which made a quick exit advisable. He had relatives already settled in Scranton, one of whom, according to family legend, ran a speakeasy.
Egisto definitely went to work in the Lackawanna coal mines. Nick was followed by three more little boys, Gino, Chester, and Joe. Of the Merli brothers, he was the only one who maintained the ability to speak fluent Italian throughout his life, and when he was a youth he accompanied his father to union meetings to act as an interpreter. When his older sister Emma eventually reunited with the family in 1938, Nick taught her to speak English, starting with ethnic slurs and curses to use against the Irish. (Scranton was divided in the inter-war years among its Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrant communities, and the Irish, having arrived earliest, apparently lorded it over the latecomers--at least according to my great-aunt Emma.)
Nick was tough, scrappy, and smart. He read voraciously. He played football and ran on the track team. He was the first Italian to be voted high school class president, and was sent to the University of Scranton on a parish scholarship. That's where he was, with a side job at a theater, when the war broke out. He would serve his time entirely stateside, mostly at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he acted as an interpreter for Italian POWs, eventually achieving the rank of sergeant.
Dig, For Victory
Meanwhile, downstate on the Philadelphia Main Line (the only place in the world where having a Welsh surname marks you out as a person of breeding), my grandmother Edith was getting ready to leave home. She was the third of four children born to Benjamin and Alice Diggory, who could trace their families back through long lines of WASPS to the Mayflower and the Downings of Downing Street.
Her own father had served very briefly in WWI-- because he was already over 30, he wasn't called up until the very end-- and Edie, being both patriotic and repulsed by Hitler, decided to find a way to serve, too. She went to nursing school, earning her Registered Nurse diploma, then enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps just in time to get shipped off to the Pacific Theatre. While she was traveling through the Panama Canal, V-E Day was declared. Not long after she arrived in Hawaii, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan. In her diary she complains of "missing the fun".
Edith (nicknamed "Dig" by her fellow nurses) stayed in Hawaii, serving as a psychiatric nurse treating Japanese POWs until she was demobilized on 1946, having achieved the rank of first lieutenant.
The New Deal as Cupid
As veterans, both my grandparents qualified for education benefits under the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. Some of the $4 billion doled out to GIs went into Nick and Edith's pockets, and they both took theirs to the University of Pennsylvania. We are not sure why Nick chose Penn: maybe it wasn't as far away from Scranton as Boston, or as expensive as New York, but he went there to earn his M.A. in history in 1947. His thesis, which I'm hoping to get my hands on again someday, was about the history of slavery in Pennsylvania, and contained a section trying to puzzle out the evidence about whether or not Ben Franklin ever freed his slaves.
Edith went to Penn to earn her B.A. in nursing administration partly because her older brother Jim was teaching there while finishing up his Ph.D. in psychology (Jim was a little too old to enlist, and also had an eye problem which probably made him medically unfit). One night, when she was stood up by a date, Edith went to the library to take her mind off the humiliation, only to find she had attracted the attention of a graduate student who was working a shift re-stocking the shelves. He showed her a cartoon in an issue of The Saturday Evening Post (that's how they shared memes in 1947). She gave him a chuckle, and, eventually, agreed to a date.
On paper, Nick and Edith were not a good match. Yes, they were both veterans, baseball fans, and of an age, but he was an Italian Catholic involved with the labor movement while she was a Protestant of mostly English and Welsh stock-- descended from the Pilgrims, for crying out loud! Edith's father, a Republican who considered trade unionists communists and Italians an ethnic underclass, was adamantly opposed.
Old Ben asked Jim to look into this Merli character, and was surprised when Jim came back with favorable reviews. (I'm not sure what Jim and Nick talked about, but as a teenager I did read a first edition of Black Boy by Richard Wright which had my grandfather's name in the front cover. When I showed it to my grandmother, she pointed out that some annotations in the margins had been written by her brother Jim. So it's possible they may have had a common interest in what was then termed "the race problem", or at the very least in books. Uncle Jim certainly did teach himself Italian later, the better to enjoy Dante with.)
At any rate, Edith and Nick married in 1949, in the rectory of a Catholic church in Philadelphia. Their witnesses were Jim Diggory, Nick's mother Assunta, and his sister Emma. My grandparents drove off in Edith's car for a honeymoon at Niagra Falls, and later tapped in to some more of that sweet, sweet government support to buy a new-build four-bedroom Cape Cod house in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey, where they raised five kids.
And for as long as they were together, Edith never let Nick forget that she outranked him.
What My American Family Means
So aside from having a story like the plot for an unwritten Billy Joel song, what's there to say about these two veterans meeting cute and settling down with their degrees and their dogtags a few blocks from the Jersey Shore? Plenty.
The forces that brought my grandparents together weren't random, nor were they divinely fated. They were the result of specific policy choices. Immigration policy. Labor policy. The reaction to the Great Depression, and the effort to ensure that the type of unrest (and terrible optics) of the post-WWI Bonus Army weren't repeated on an even larger scale in 1946.
Jim Crow enters into this as well. Franklin Roosevelt was a Democrat, and as he pushed the New Deal legislation through Congress, he had to appease the Southern members of his coalition by ensuring that the benefits of various programs, such as minimum wage and Social Security, did not apply equally to black Americans. This also extended to the GI Bill, which was written in ostensibly race-neutral language.
Very often, black veterans found themselves with benefits in theory but not in practice. They were turned away from colleges in spite of the fact that they had tuition stipends, and turned down for low-interest mortgages in the new suburban developments. The newer, smaller black colleges could not accommodate all the black returning veterans, and often only offered two-year degrees.
My grandparents were the son and daughter of a coal miner and a traveling salesman turned farmer, respectively. They were smart and driven, and they were given a substantial boost up into the middle class by their veterans' benefits. The house they bought appreciated wildly in value--I've no idea what the place sold for in 2012, but I know it helped pay for my grandmother's dementia care throughout 2013.
The fact that Nick and Edith had three college degrees between them meant they'd likely never want for well-paid work, and that they could afford to provide quality educations for their children, too. They sent all five of their children to a fee-paying parochial school for at least part of their education, as well as contributing to college tuitions and even offering my parents a loan when they decided to buy a Pennsylvania inn in the 1980s.
A pair of equally smart and driven black veterans, (even, let's say, active combat veterans, whom you might argue were more "deserving" of benefits than my grandparents) wouldn't have had the same opportunity to gain qualifications or wealth, to provide education equal to their children's potential or help them get afloat in businesses.
Multiply that out by several thousands of black veterans, and you begin to understand part of the cause of the colossal wealth gap separating white people from all the others.* It isn't chance. It isn't fate, or something in our DNA. It's choices. Choices that gave us extra privilege. You might call it white privilege.
Make Better Choices
As Veterans' Day (Observed) 2018 comes to a close, our veterans need us to make better choices on their behalf. The Veterans' Administration has been underfunded for years, while we have been creating more veterans than ever through our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and quiet support of conflicts ongoing in other hotspots.
We don't provide adequate mental health support despite the significantly higher risk of suicide among veterans, or support for families caring for wounded vets. IT and administrative problems in the VA led to as many as 300,000 veterans dying while their applications for care languished, according to a 2015 report, and right now you will see many, many headlines in the news about student veterans facing homelessness and expulsion from their educational programs because of delays to their GI Bill payments.
The current administration is quite happily pouring VA money into private pockets, but the truth is that for a few decades now, many politicians who pay lip service to veterans-- even those who are veterans themselves-- have unimpressive records when it comes to ensuring veterans get the care they need.
If you want to support veterans, it isn't enough to offer them a free meal at your restaurant or discounts on tickets. You need to support politicians willing to actually do the work of helping them build a future after their service is over, and work to hold those politicians accountable. We are the richest and most powerful country in the world. Working to offer the 2.7 million veterans of our longest-ever wars the kind of health, economic, and educational support my grandparents received isn't impossible. It's the least we can do.
Exit Music, Because It's Getting Very Hard to Stay
*These are the two most-studied groups; Native Americans and many Asian-Americans didn't even have full citizenship rights after military service until well into the 1950s, let alone equal access to benefits.