Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Last of a breed

Ervin Gilbert Fahlgren,

Photo courtesy of his daughter, Bonnie,
who was named after my mom.
Three of the Greatest Generation — and the last of one family's generation — have passed away this month.

One is my Great-Uncle Ervin Fahlgren, one of five brothers who served together aboard the same ship which was disabled in the attack of Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, died March 11 at 92. He survived all of his six brothers, all World War II veterans, and a sister — my grandmother, Irene Gibson.

Another is Joseph P. Murphy Jr., the father-in-law of my wife's twin, who died the same day at 89. The retired Sonoma County Superior Court judge, fought as a Marine at Guadalcanal and in the battle of Iwo Jima.

Another is Joe Davey Jr., a man who with grace and a huge smile served the poor and the desperate in the neighborhoods around our church northeast of Sacramento. As a Marine fighter pilot, Joe fought in the Solomon and Philippine islands.

They had so much to teach, and did. Still, I had so much more I could have learned.

Great-Uncle Ervin would have been the only one remaining to read a post I wrote commemorating the Fahlgren brothers' Navy service aboard the USS Vestal, a repair ship moored to the USS Arizona when Japanese bombers attacked. The Fahlgrens in the Navy — brother Leonard joined the Army — survived the attack and Ervin joined his brothers when the Vestal was repaired and put back into service, until the military stopped letting so many siblings serve together in the same small units.

The Fahlgren children: Ervin, Warner, Carl and Glen in back;
Vern, my grandma Irene, Gordon and Leonard.
Since writing about Great-Uncle Ervin and his brothers for the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I have connected and reconnected with some of the members of the brothers' families; through them I learned of his passing, and through them I'm beginning to put a puzzle  together.

Ervin came home from the war and raised his family in Klamath Falls, Ore. I remember visiting his family — my second cousins — at least once, probably on our way to Spokane, Wash. to visit my grandma. Klamath Falls was a timber town then, if I remember correctly, and great-Uncle Ervin was a driver there. Giant blackened upside-down cones, the sawdust incinerators, peppered the landscape, like Paul Bunyan's fencerows. Mountains of sideways trees lay next to the cones, and the air carried the sour smell of wet campfires. Oregon's landscape has changed considerably since then. Ervin his family moved to Wilsonville, south of Portland, where he and his wife managed a trailer court.
Ervin and Warner in front,
Vern, Glenn and Gordon in back.

Funny the moments on which we snag our memories. For me, the thought of Klamath Falls takes me immediately to a moment running around with cousins — I must have been five or six — and falling headlong on a gravel alley, scraping up both palms. The cousins and my great-aunt Edna tended my wounds and tried to soothe my howls; I remember feeling embarrassed, because I didn't want their memory of me to be this kid who screams out of all proportion to his hurts.

Now we are grown and our parents are passing away, and in their passing we are reacquainting.

Like Great-Uncle Ervin's children, the children of Joseph Murphy, and their children, gathered this week to remember him. I have always known him as the retired judge, gentle-voiced, quick to gather you in on a conversation, quicker with the driest, sharpest wit I may ever have heard. And easily the most devoted fan of baseball I will ever meet.

He loved baseball's numbers, finding in its 150 years or more of history a rich mine.

What I didn't know, and didn't think to ask about, is his wartime service. In a Press Democrat story recalling Joe Murphy's life, one of his daughters says the experience, and the loss of friends in battle, deepened his appreciation for life and informed his compassionate ways as a judge. At his retirement, attorneys called Joe Murphy "the embodiment of what a judge should be."

A retired attorney at Joe Murphy's wake said he might lose a case in the judge's court and feel better about it than if he had won, because Joe Murphy was fair and compassionate.

Nor did I know that he led a protest against the United States' role in its attack on Iraq in 1991. Though I shared his beliefs, I didn't know it, and he proved far more forthright than I in acting on his beliefs. What a conversation, missed!

Joe Davey and I briefly shared in acting out our beliefs, when we volunteered for the St. Vincent de Paul Society at our church. Joe remained active until he couldn't be active anymore. My lame excuse is a cattywhampus career path that detoured when I went to teacher school.

Though engaged in similar jobs helping the poor within the society, Joe and I rarely worked together. Didn't matter. Joe greeted me like an old friend. He was glad to see me and it showed. He made everyone glad to be seen. He smiled thoughtfully at what I had to say, practically watching the words come out of my mouth so he could join fully in our conversation.

As a Marine, he flew Corsair fighters during campaigns in Okinawa, as well as the Solomon and Philippine Islands, during World War II. He settled in Carmichael and worked as the sales executive for a tool company. And probably made clients feel glad and welcome.

I take from Joe Davey a reminder to greet others as I want to be greeted and welcomed, to emerge more often from my mask of reserve. From Joe Murphy I recall his easy, comfortable way, and his children's remembrance of him as one who treated everything and everyone with patience; though I could never match wits with his wit, I will listen to Giants games with the idea that they play on, and generate the numbers he love, in his memory.

From Ervin Fahlgren, I take the rootedness that lived on in my mom, his niece, who, though full of mirth, regarded life with a hard edge of common sense and practicality. Maybe it's a Midwest, North Dakota/Montana sensibility. My dad, a Korean War veteran, deeply admired people like Ervin Fahlgren and his brothers, for what they provided for him.

From all of these World War II veterans, who lived through horrors, I try to take something from their model, their coming home to carry out in thought and deed the free country they sacrificed to protect, to make possible all that that I am able to do and think, and strive to make something of this opportunity.

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