My father sent me a photograph on Wednesday morning. It was snapped sometime in the middle of the night. I am looking at it now. Featured prominently in this photo is a hospital gurney with an American flag draped across its rails and over the form (which is suggested but can’t quite be made out) beneath. Along each wall is a line of male and female nurses. Some are in scrubs and some are not. Some wear a kind of dark-colored vest associated with the American military. At least nine stand at respectful but not rigid attention. I can just make out the eyes of one man. He’s lowered his eyes. They are solemn but alert. What I see in his eyes is respect. Though the man covered with the flag has been in this unit for perhaps a single week, and these staff members didn’t get to know him, they stand in respect of and for him. It’s 3am. They are watching as his gurney is being wheeled down the hallway away from his hospital room.
Raymond Capone lived through the depression and was eighteen years old when the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor. He turned eighteen that day, in fact. He signed up to join the war effort within weeks. He joined the army. In fact, the armed forces didn’t have an air force at that time, so what he joined was the air corps of the army. He was assigned to a B-17 bomber, and his job was to operate the radio of the airship and to fire the .50 caliber machine gun from the central part of the fuselage – a waist gunner, he’d have been called. He was a religious man. He asked for forgiveness after participating in the morale bombings that took countless lives of civilians; he especially agonized over his part in killing women and children. But it was necessary. He did not get over it. It’s one of the things I admire most of him.
He flew over twenty missions over Germany when the air campaign over Europe began, and he was on what was supposed to be his last mission before earning leave when his plane was separated from the pack that had kept it safe. The heavy bombers, having no evasive abilities, relied on covering fields of fire from other airplanes to protect one another. His plane was so badly damaged that it lagged and had to be left behind for the good of the group. He and his crew members do not fault their bomber group for leaving them. This is another thing worth admiring in him.
When he bailed out of his crippled aircraft, shrapnel buried in his stomach and leg, he had the wherewithal to flip his middle finger at a passing-by Nazi fighter pilot. Notch one more for Ray Capone.
When he landed, one of the things he remembered most clearly was the civilian doctor (at least, this is how I remember what he remembered) who administered medicine that captured prisoners were never supposed to receive. The doctor did this to ease my grandfather’s pain. He always remembered that doctor, recognizing that even among blood enemies there is pity and humanity. One more for Capone.
He was taken in a boxcar (they fit 40 men to a single boxcar, handing the group two buckets – they had to sleep standing up, if they were too tired to remain conscious). He was in three different Luftwaffe P.O.W. camps and was liberated by the Red Army at the conclusion of the war. He was terrified by them, judging them harshly for their terror-driven rape-and-pillage way of “liberating” everything else they crossed on their way to Berlin. He was a good judge of character.
He came home having lost 100+ pounds to malnutrition, dysentery, and tuberculosis. He recovered.
He went to college on the GI bill. He started and built a business. He supported his wife, Jackie. He got to know everyone in town. Even in his last years, he would tell stories that began like, “Oh, that such-and-such a landmark? You know, I was one of the principal investors…” The odd thing about these stories was that they were true. Everyone knew him as well as he knew them, and people would say to me, “Oh, that’s your grandfather? He was one of the first men in the door at such-and-such a restaurant…” He helped to raise his four children. They were more successful than he was, at least in the eyes of the world, and that is all any parent wants, I imagine. To be honest, though, there’s no way any of them – or any of us grandkids – could ever live up to the standards he set. To count the ways in which the man was inspiring to everyone around him would be an unfunny punch line to a Sisyphean-themed joke.
My favorite thing about my grandfather is tough to pin down. He was generous to a fault. He was a voracious reader and was always learning. He was a passionate arguer; we never agreed about much of anything, and that was most of the fun of visiting him.
Maybe the best thing, from a selfish point of view, was that he praised his family to no end. Another thing people would often say to me ran something like this: “Oh, your grandfather is Ray Capone? You’re his grandson Stephen? He never stops talking about you. He says you’re the smartest person in the room. He says you’re going to do great things and change the world. Your brothers are Andrew and Danny, right? You three. He never stops, I tell you. You kids must be something special, the way he talks about you. No one ever had any grandkids like you. Your parents must be proud – I know how proud he is.”
This is a man who served in a military that aimed at an unquestionable good and suffered greatly and without complaint for it; he was honorable. He was an entrepreneur, raising a family from humble roots. He was giving, kind, and dedicated. He did impressive things. What does he do when he gets a chance at a passing chat with a neighbor? He praises his family. I am not as good a man as he. Not yet, anyway.
I was not there to stand at attention for him when he died. I feel quite sad about that.