Memorial Day stirs an array of emotions in many of us. There is no shortage of articles, essays, and interviews with pious voices imploring civilians to recognize that the holiday isn’t just about their barbecues and steep retail discounts. There are families who’ve suffered the unimaginable and find this day just as difficult as every other day since their worlds were first shattered. And there are those of us who just wish we had our friends back.
The truth is, there is no right or wrong way, per se, to spend the holiday. The best any of us can strive for is to understand that the liberties and simple pleasures we enjoy today, even amid these extremely trying times, were paid for with someone else’s life. And as with most things, the earlier we’re exposed to these ideas, and the earlier we’re imbued with this sense of gratitude and reverence, the more likely we are to be able to process and develop our own thoughts and opinions on this often painful subject. The earlier we have hard talks with our children, the sooner they can begin to process and navigate their own paths toward mature and responsible citizenship. I consider myself incredibly fortunate that one of my personal heroes had these hard talks with me as a young boy.
Jack Salem Polis was my grandfather. His family’s name was anglicized to Polis from Polaz when they processed through Ellis Island after arriving from Turkey. He was raised by a blue-collar family in Buffalo, and shortly after the devastating attacks on Pearl Harbor he did what young American men of the day did: he married his sweetheart Diane (and how American is that — Jack and Diane!), and he joined the Navy. After completing training in Florida he shipped off to join the crew of the USS TINOSA (SS 283) where he completed multiple wartime Pacific patrols that saw TINOSA sink tens of thousands of tons of Japanese shipping. TINOSA was awarded numerous awards and citations, but more importantly she stayed intact, afloat, and alive. That was no small miracle. The casualty record for American submarines in the Pacific was long. In total 52 submarines and more than 3,000 crew-members were lost during the war. And to say “lost” almost seems trite, disrespectful even, to the actual fate that befell those subs. The manner in which those men died is equal parts unimaginable and horrifying. But, TINOSA came home, and with her, Jack.
In the years that followed he served in key leadership positions with the local chapter of the Submarine Veterans of World War II, and never missed an opportunity to share a story or use his experience from the war to refine a learning point he had for us kids. One project he dedicated years of his life to was the creation of the US Submarine Veterans WWII Memorial West.
Some of the fondest memories I have as a young boy are of summers spent at my grandparent’s home when he was in the process of overhauling the site and building it into what is there today. I learned how to use a lawn mower, how to start a gas powered weed-whacker, how to install a sprinkler system, and most importantly, I learned how much that place meant to my grandfather.
For him, the memorial was more than just well-kept grass, a flag pole, a polished torpedo, and 52 plaques with lists of names. For him, I came to learn, it was a place where he could be with his shipmates again — the ones who didn’t come home. Considering his service was limited to one submarine, I was, even at a young age, amazed at how he knew the stories of so many of the other subs and even individual crew members. I learned of men he’d left Buffalo with who never came home. I learned of the poorly designed and faulty torpedoes that were as unpredictable as they were ineffective. I learned how strong the animus was toward the enemy, and why he tried his best to still only buy American. I learned about the idea of “ship, shipmate, self” long before I would ever meet a Naval Academy graduate. But perhaps most importantly, I learned from my namesake the importance of remembering those who’ve paid the steepest price, and that living well and honorably is indeed the highest form of tribute.
Death, tragedy, and sacrifice are admittedly difficult topics to discuss with children, but I am eternally grateful that my grandfather cared enough to do just that with me. And now, I’m doing my best to impart upon my son these same values. I’ve told him about James, Kelly, Rob, Patrick, Alan, Valerie, Will, and many others — not to frighten him, but because I’m trying to raise my boy into a young man and a grateful citizen who understands what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
I think my grandfather would approve.