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Remembering veterans who bore the scars of World War I and II

Heather Lende
Heather Lende photo

HAINES -- At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month since WW I ended 95 years ago, I was babysitting my granddaughters, the great grandchildren of two WW I veterans. At the close of the day I met with the recent widow of a WW II veteran to write his obituary by the wood cookstove in the kitchen of their 100-year-old home on Officer's Row of historic Fort Seward. 

Both my grandfathers served in the War to End All Wars. One was a Pennsylvania farm boy who lied about his age to join the fight. (He was tall and an eighth-grade troublemaker). The other, my French grandfather, a jeweler, survived the battle of the Somme, married and raised a family and re-enlisted in middle age when WW II broke out. Then he survived a German prison camp. I remember his rose garden, pipe smoke, and a fondness for champagne toasts and flaming desserts. I was surprised when he was eulogized as a hero in the French underground resistance movement. I didn't know.

My American grandfather served in the U.S. Army balloon corps. When he returned from the war, he was no longer a troublemaker and he'd converted from a Presbyterian to a high church Episcopalian. He graduated from the Colorado School of Mines and returned to Pennsylvania. He was my quiet grandfather who liked cats (a Tom named Tom lived under his porch) sang bass in the church choir, and made his own high-powered telescope out of milk cans. The first time I saw a picture of him in uniform was after he died, and my mother enlarged and framed a photo she had found cleaning out his desk. (The oak roll-top now does double duty as the changing table in the den turned grandchildren's play-and-nap room at my house.)

The Haines veteran whose obituary I'm writing also fibbed about his age to fight in WWII. Lowell Knutson served in the 359th infantry in Europe and was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery. I know more about him now than I do about my own grandfathers, probably because I'm old enough to know what questions to ask.

Lowell used a cane as long as I'd known him -- 30 years. Turns out his knees were wrecked by shelling three weeks before the war ended, and one leg ended up two inches shorter than the other.

After the war, he learned to fly and skydive. He came to Alaska and worked as a logger (there were more injuries to his legs, shoulders and back) but he did air shows for fun, parachuting onto the mission field here and the frozen Yukon River during the annual Sourdough Rendezvous. He brought poetry books into the woods, where he worked, and studied them at lunchtime. He recited verse by heart all the time, from Robert Service (his specialty -- he performed Service for years at the Chilkat Center here) to Longfellow and Tennyson and many more  of the classic poets.

His war injuries gave him pain for the rest of his life, his widow said. "He got used to it." I asked her what he said about the war, was he ever angry? Sad? Or proud? She said he did his duty, like so many young men at the time and thought he had it easy. His brother was in a Japanese prison camp for three years.  She said about all he had to say about the war was, "'Well that was then and that's all over now.'"

When Lowell came to Alaska he told her, "'I'd thought I'd died and gone to heaven.'" As a favorite poet of his wrote, the stillness filled him with peace.

Haines writer Heather Lende is finishing her third book of essays, “Finding the Good.” This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.