The Loop Newspaper - Tehachapi's Online Community News & Entertainment Guide

By Bill Mead 

Silver Medals and sweet memories

The Overall Picture

 

Today, We Honor The Overall Man Classic Bill Mead

Reprinted with permission from Tehachapi Lifestyle Magazine, November 2012 issue.When I was a small lad in Iowa we had Civil War veterans in our Memorial Day parades.

Today, I find that hard to believe even though I was there.

The memory of those old Union soldiers whose war tales are now buried with them prompted me a few years ago to try writing a family history of my Dad's experiences in the First World War. By then it was clear that before long there wouldn't be anybody left who had taken part in that conflict.

Typically, I waited too long. When I finally got around to interviewing Dad his mind had become clouded and he couldn't remember anything. All I had to go on were a packet of letters and documents, a handful of medals and fragmentary recollections Dad had let slip over the years.

Faced with that shortage of information I had to forget the written history. But it all wasn't a wasted effort. Thanks to the little bit of material I had about Dad's action-packed military career I began to see in truer perspective a man I had never understood well.

The thing about Dad was he didn't talk much. I grew up talking mostly to my Mother with Dad a silent, benevolent presence. These days he would be called a poor communicator. However you say it, I reached maturity thinking of him as a backward, timid person. I was dead wrong about that.

There wasn't the slightest hostility between us. He was a nice man in every sense of the word. I knew he had deep feelings but had a hard time expressing them. As an example, when I left for the Navy around the close of World War II he said goodbye at the train depot in an off-hand way but tears were pouring down his face.

My picture of Dad changed after I began researching his role in the First World War. The medals and the yellowed letters from the War Department made it plain he had been a courageous soldier.

It took me awhile to fasten that unfamiliar image on the gentle, reserved man I knew. But the facts are indisputable. He joined the Army early, got in the battle zone quickly and fought hard there. He became sergeant in an Army Engineers unit that built bridges under enemy fire. It was no place for a sissy. Eventually he was engulfed in the gigantic Second Battle of the Marne, a desperation attack by the Germans that exhausted them and showed the world the temper of the American troops.

After long days at the Marne front, Dad suffered mustard gas poisoning and was hospitalized- but not until he had stayed at the post long enough to permanently damage his respiratory system. He didn't get these medals with boxtops, I discovered.

The war was never over for Dad because the cold air of Iowa caused recurring pain in his gas-scarred bronchial tubes. It's typical of his retiring nature that he never told anybody he wanted to move to the balmier climate of California. That came out in 1945 when I wrote from boot camp in San Diego that I planned to remain in this state. Dad then confided to Mother that for 25 years he had wanted to live in California. He was stunned when she said that she would have moved happily to the west coast anytime if he had only spoken up. And so they came. They had 30 great years here.

Dad died last December. He was 85 and worn out in mind and body. The veterans of Foreign War conducted his service. The firing squad was made up of World War II veterans whose appearance reminded us it's also been a long time since V-J Day. The squad leader was recovering from an apparent stroke. In a touching display of respect for an older soldier, he managed to stand ramrod-straight with only a little support from his cane. God bless him.

It seems fitting that Dad lived a long, prosperous life because he was always kind and honest. Still, I wish we had talked more along the way. Then I would have found out sooner that he was also a very gutsy guy.

(Editor's note, Frank Buckles, the last living U.S. World War I veteran, died in Feb. 2011)

If you don't know Bill: Bill Mead was the longtime publisher of the Tehachapi News, along with Betty Mead, his wife and partner of more than 50 years. Known for his keen wit, which could be gentle or scathing or somewhere in between but was often self-deprecatory, Bill's writing won him a wide following among News readers. His column "The Overall Picture" ran in the News for more than 25 years, and in 1999 he published a collection of his columns in a volume entitled The Napa Valley Outhouse War. His book is currently available for sale at the Tehachapi Museum for $10.

Bill had a remarkable mind and because of his intelligence, humor and appearance he was regarded by many as Tehachapi's Mark Twain. As Betty used to remind him, he was "older than the oldest Model A Ford" and his wealth of life experiences and rural upbringing allowed him to bring a thoroughly American, 20th century perspective to his reflections and musings on the everyday. Bill passed away in 2008 but his writing lives on.

[Publisher's note: I read Bill's articles during the 80s and 90s and 2000s and I am grateful to share them now with our current readers. I hope you enjoy this touch of nostalgia as much as I do.]

 
 

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