© 2023 Robert Sickles
Howard Gray was my idea of a great father-in-law. He was a friend to everyone in the family, a sweet guy and a fun member of every gathering. He was respectful when offering helpful advice, and gracious when accepting it. Even though there could have been some reasons why he wouldn't approve of me, when he could see that I really loved Linda and her mother, that made me OK in his book.
Howard had a very bad relationship with his son, and I'd lost my father to cancer. The opportunity to bond and heal was there for us, and in his later years, we two became closer, especially as Howard grew more dependent.
First, a few of our fun memories of Howard. He had a nice head of silver hair, but his old-guy stubbornness kept him from finding a good barber! Standing tall, the poor man was recognizable from any distance by his stick-out hair.
Howard was slow-moving in general, but remarkably so in the morning. When our girls were young, we all stayed in an ocean beach house in Lincoln City, Oregon. The kids wanted to get going on the day’s activities, but Howard was holding everything up, earning him the nickname Pokey Howie. The name stuck, appropriate for many occasions, and especially his driving.
Howard had a bad sense of direction. It was normal for him to drive up late to any gathering, and someone would ask why he took so long. In his understated way, he’d reply “we took the scenic route,” that is, they made all the wrong turns. His wife Vi—Linda’s mom, wasn’t a lot of help in that area. She had a habit of reading aloud every road sign she passed, even the ones that were not helping to find their way. “Oh, look,” she'd announce, “Exit 109 Keep Right.” Howard assumed he was supposed to turn right, and would find they had a several mile drive before they could find a U-turn There was a little bit of George and Gracie about them!
Something he was quick at, though, was card games. He taught us to play cribbage and we could never beat him; and he was good at blackjack—the math part of his mind was pretty sharp. On the down side of that, Howard fancied himself a shrewd gambler. Vi was firm in squashing his fantasy of making a big haul at the casino. He loved that woman more than anything, so whatever she decided was OK by him. When coy Howard asked if we were in the mood for prime rib, that meant it was time for us to drive him to the casino.
For anyone who prefers the company of a riveting conversationalist, Howard was gloriously unimpressive; he was a man of few words, but much laughter. There was nothing derisive or sarcastic about his humor, and not a coarse or profane word ever left his lips. How could we not love a guy with a twinkle in his eye and a contagious giggle?
Vi had to be moved to a memory care home and Howard was on his own. He lived near enough to us that Linda and I were happy to take care of his personal business—appointments, medications, mail, etc. One day when it was my turn to look in on him and he began to talk about his time in the Army. Our PBS channel was running a series on World War II, and I may have commented that my father served the home front but my uncles all had experience in battle. Howard became serious and asked me to sit down and listen. This was so unlike him, and I was blown away by the story he told. I think this was in 2004, three years before he passed away.
By early 1944, draftee Howard Milton Gray was with the U.S. Army in Europe as mechanical and technical support. He never came close to combat, I think never even saw an enemy soldier. As part of the secret preparation for the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, he was sent to Cardiff in Wales. His job there was to teach the hundreds of vehicle drivers how to quickly prepare their Jeeps and trucks for the run from the landing boats toward shore— without stalling in sea water.
Someone had devised a quick solution. With not much more than big hoses, putty-stickum, clamps and tape they rigged a kind of snorkel for engine air intake and exhaust in such a way that the vehicles could run submerged for a reasonable distance. Howard feared it was a crazy plan, and criticized it to his superiors. The system had been tested somewhere and “mostly” worked—Howard thought that was not very reassuring. But without a better solution, he followed orders and taught the drivers how to do it. Everyone prayed, it had to succeed.
But during the massive D-Day invasion, rough seas and a fast-rising tide thwarted the effectiveness of the jerry-rig system. Many vehicles were left stalled in the sea. Back in England, far away from battle, Howard lost sleep over the losses suffered in the invasion. Because of his half-hearted role instructing the drivers at Cardiff, Howard feared he had let his men down. He worried that maybe he hadn’t done a good enough job of teaching them, or should have worked harder on improving the system. He never thought to reunite with his unit or mix with other old veterans. He was haunted by the faces of many of the young fellows he had taught in Wales. He became convinced he was responsible for American soldiers dying on those beaches.
Later in that year, after the Germans had retreated, Howard worked as a machinist in an Army motor pool. The unit was stationed in Rethel, in northern France. The enemy was far away. The worst problem they had was that someone from the town seemed to be sneaking into the compound at night and siphoning gasoline from the Army vehicles. The GI's were ordered to be more watchful, not to take any direct action, but just to let their officer know if they spotted anything. He’d then take the matter to the town council.
When Howard was alone on watch duty one night, he decided he'd carry the pistol he had improvised from scrap metal and spare parts in the machine shop—an untested and unauthorized weapon! In the dark he spotted some figures crouching near a truck. He called out to them to halt, raised his pistol, aimed in their direction and pulled the trigger. The pistol didn't fire—just a click. Howard's hand was trembling. Immediately the thieves ran. But when they passed under a street lamp, Howard could see it was a pair of small children.
To the end of his days, Howard secretly relived the nightmare that could have been—but wasn't—the day he killed a child, caused a catastrophe for the town of Rethel, disgraced the American military in France, disobeyed a direct order, and got a criminal conviction. I wondered if the misfire of his pistol couldn’t be seen as a beautiful miracle. But Howard could only feel guilt for even coming that close to tragedy.
Under his easy-going manner, Howard was haunted with regret about both ends of his Army story. But when he opened up to me, it was a sublime moment of trust and companionship. I have felt honored to retell it to others in his memory, and always choke up the same way Howard did that day. When he finished his story, I asked him to please forgive himself, but words didn’t matter a lot. We shared a grip of hands, hugs & pats on shoulders, and sniffed up some tears.
The quality of Howard’s life was slipping away. He was going blind, had lost his wife to Alzheimer’s, his mobility was impaired and his days had turned into a regimen of health care woes wrapped in red tape. It was to be an ordinary visit, we chatted about groceries, family and football. I cleaned his hearing aids, rubbed some lotion on his dry feet and read him his mail. Then, suddenly, we were immersed and enlightened in the best meanings of father, son and brotherhood.
If anyone reading this knows of an old soldier, now would be a good time to strike up a conversation.
As an epilogue, a curious thing came up when Linda had a session with a psychic medium. This was a short while after Howard passed. Right at the start, the woman said she sensed a funny figure was present, with a description that matched Howard’s appearance—unruly hair and all! He was wearing a hospital gown and toting an IV stand, just the way we might have seen him last. And he was bearing dozens of roses and repeating “Thank you, thank you.” Linda and I understood his message so clearly.
Howard (with hair nicely combed) and Violet Gray