Given by me on May 24th, 2010 at my grandfather’s funeral in Fletcher, Oklahoma.
* * *
No person can sum up the life of another. Life is too precious to be described by mere words. Rather it must remain as it is remembered by those who loved and watched and shared. For such memories are alive, unbound by birth and death. I read this quote over a year ago, and I think of it often. “We are linked by blood. And blood is memory without language.”
Though my grandfather has left this earthly realm, the circle of his influence is ever-widening. With each passing day I realize how much of him lives within me.
My grandfather, Lewis Lester Swart, was born on November 2, 1921 on his parents’ farm two miles south and one mile east of Rocky, Oklahoma. His father and mother, Herman and Bessie Kleiner Swart, (and their families) had moved to Washita County in 1910 from Riley County, Kansas. He was named for his mother’s brother, Lewis Julius Kleiner.
Often called “Luke”, he was the fifth of eight children — two girls and six boys. It was always said that every girl in the county wanted a Swart boy. My grandmother would add, “And I got one!”
He was first taken to the cotton fields in what was known as a “cottonsack cradle.” His mother would lay him in the shade and pick cotton, tending to him when he cried out or the shade shifted away from where he was laying. As soon as he was old enough to drag one of the sacks himself, he was out with the rest of the family on those October days pulling cotton.
Grandpa’s twin brothers, Earl & Mearl were born in 1923. Their mother would sit in the rocking chair, with the twins in her arms, and would cross her ankles so that grandpa could sit as well. In this manner, she could rock all three little boys.
Grandpa graduated from Rocky High School with the Class of 1939. His senior shirt, a white oxford with the year and school embroidered on the back, was among his prized “relics” as he called them. I wore this shirt on my last day of school at Fletcher High. It was so small, that I couldn’t button it or raise my arms!
After high school, he worked for custom harvesting outfits that followed the wheat harvest up into the Dakotas. When the Kio-Wash Rural Electric Co-Op was established, he worked on a crew to dig holes for the new utility poles. I remember him telling a story about working on Thanksgiving Day, and his mother preparing a fine lunch of fried chicken for him. He happened to be the last man to pick up his lunch from the back of the truck, and when he looked in, one pail was left — but it wasn’t his. After thinking all morning of how great his lunch was going to be, he had to eat a cold bologna sandwich. He never did find out who had taken his lunch!
In December 1941, the United States entered World War Two. The head of the draft board for Washita County had been outspoken against Germans, and said that if any young man’s name came up for review that sounded “half-German,” that boy was going to war. Knowing that he would no doubt be drafted because of his German name, grandpa volunteered for the U.S. Navy, and entered service in September 1942. All six Swart boys would end up serving during the war, and amazingly, all six returned home.
He attended training in San Diego, California and St. Paul, Minnesota. He spent time in Boston, Massachusetts until he was assigned duty aboard the U.S.S. Belknap, a destroyer in the Atlantic. The Belknap was given the Presidential Citation Award for her success in bombing German U-Boats.
The Belknap did escort duty for cargo ships, and grandpa traveled to Newfoundland, Morocco, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. I remember him telling of a stop in the Hawai’ian Islands and seeing the damage of Pearl Harbor for himself.
In 1944, the Belknap was sent to Papua New Guinea and then to the Philippines as part of the liberation of those islands from the Japanese. The Belknap assisted in the invasion of Leyte, and also the invasion of Lingayen on January 9, 1945. The ship provided artillery backup from the Lingayen Gulf for forces on the ground. Japanese swimmers attempted on several occasions to take out ships in the fleet by strapping explosives to themselves and swimming below the ships. On January 11th, crewmen of the Belknap killed thirteen of these suicide swimmers – including one who had attempted to throw a grenade on the ship.
On the morning of January 12th, several kamikaze planes were spotted heading for the ships in the gulf. The most effective way to deal with this problem was a barrage of gunfire trained on the planes. Though efforts were made to take down these aircraft, a suicide plane crashed into the number two stack of the Belknap at 7:46 a.m. One of the plane’s two bombs fell into the sea before the crash, but the other exploded on the deck of the Belknap which sustained “extensive” damage according to reports.
Thirty-eight members of the crew were killed instantly or mortally wounded. Forty-nine were injured, included grandpa, who sustained shrapnel wounds in his legs. He told my father that the only reason he survived was that he was below deck. He also spoke about the horrible sights he witnessed after the explosion. Grandpa was awarded the Purple Heart in January 1946 for wounds sustained in the kamikaze attack.
That afternoon, the bodies of the fallen comrades were buried at sea with full honors. The ship was damaged so badly it had to be towed to Manus Island of Papua New Guinea. Repairs were made until the 18th, and the ship was taken back to San Diego, and then through the Panama Canal to Philadelphia where it was decommissioned and scrapped. Grandpa was one of 23 crewmen that stayed aboard the Belknap on the voyage to Philadelphia.
After an honorable discharge from the Navy, he returned to Washita County. In May 1946, he began courting Miss LaWana Davis, daughter of the local Baptist preacher. That same year, he helped to construct a new wooden grain elevator in Rocky. He would soon leave for California to work for his Uncle T.A. & Aunt Emily Kleiner Cotton. He returned to Oklahoma in the Fall of 1947, and once again took up the trade of carpentry. He once told me that he helped to build half of the houses in the town of Burns Flat!
He married LaWana on August 23, 1957 in Clinton. They didn’t tell anyone about the nuptials until after the fact. That evening, they drove out to his parents’ farm to inform them that they had been married. The next morning, grandpa’s mother called around to all of his siblings looking for him. She had forgotten about the marriage announcement, and was worried because he hadn’t come home that night!
In October 1959, their first son, Philip Lee was born. Their second son, Joe Dale, would arrive in January 1963. In 1968, grandpa gained employment as a carpenter at Ft. Sill, and moved his young family to Comanche County. They rented a few houses in Fletcher, and finally decided to move their old house from Rocky to Fletcher in 1971.
Grandpa purchased lots in the 600 block of West Griffin and set to work putting in a foundation for the house. He said that other men in the community would come visit with him and watched him work. They teased him that the house wouldn’t fit onto the foundation correctly and he’d have to do it over once the house was brought it. And so the Swart home (and two-car garage) made it’s 100-mile journey to Fletcher. The house fit the foundation perfectly!
When I was a small boy in the 1980s, it wasn’t rare to hear grandma or grandpa refer to a window in the house by the wrong direction. They had lived on the north side of the street in Rocky, but the south side in Fletcher, so the house was turned 180° from what it had always been!
I was born in May of 1982 – the first grandchild. My birth marked the first time that three generations of Swart men had been alive in quite some time. My father had never known his grandpa Swart, and grandpa had never known his grandfather. My sister Hannah Reine’ was born in 1985 and Maura Reine’ was born in 1987. Phil’s daughters, Laura Elizabeth and Natalie Elise, were born in 1991 and 1993.
Grandpa retired from Ft. Sill in 1987, and took up the life of a retiree. In the years after his retirement, it took grandma a little while to get used to having grandpa around the house all day. She said that sometimes he would come into the kitchen, and stand at the stove with her to inspect what she was doing. Though I’m sure she was irritated by this, I never heard a harsh word spoken between them. His daily regimen consisted of reading the Lawton Constitution front-to-back several times each day along with plenty of naps in his recliner. He also worked the newspaper’s word scramble, which he simply referred to as his “puzzle.” After he was unable to read the newspaper any longer, grandma would transcribe the jumbled words onto another piece of paper with a black marker in large block letters so that he could still solve it each day.
After my parents divorced in 1988, we moved back to Fletcher from Duncan with my mother. This was a blessing in disguise. Growing up in Fletcher allowed me to spend many hours with my grandparents, and to receive the many pearls of wisdom they shared.
Grandpa spent many hours in his vegetable gardens, and grandma canned the yield of their labor. It was a joy to go to the garden with grandpa after school. I learned so much from him while planting seeds in rows (carefully measured 27” apart with his carpenter’s rule), or digging potatoes or pulling onions. I can remember the way he held his hoe — its wooden handle worn smooth by the many years of use. My sisters and I would spend summer evenings sitting outside with the grandparents snapping green beans, shelling peas, and shucking corn. I learned to identify species of flowers and trees and to recognize weather patterns. It was the type of education you don’t receive anywhere else.
Of course Grandpa taught me things that Grandma didn’t always approve of. I think that’s just part of the job description of a grandfather. He used to sing a World War Two-era song by the Andrews Sisters called “Strip Polka” about a burlesque dancer named Queenie. Grandma would say, “Don’t teach the kids that!” I still know the song by heart.
Grandpa sold off his garden plot in 2005. He’d been farming that same ground since 1969. Grandpa and Grandma continued to shell pecans from the three trees in their front yard, often freezing nearly a hundred pounds of nut meats throughout the winter.
It wasn’t uncommon to look out the window and see grandpa sitting in a chair in the yard listening to the birds and watching the clouds. He had mastered the art of awareness. Listening to the breeze blowing gently through the trees or watching tiny ants marching single-file, he took pleasure in the world around him and in the wonders of nature. The world is often fast-paced and stressful. Grandpa taught me that it is important to stop what I’m doing, and to look at my surroundings and simply be. To never close your eyes, to always look, and strive, and learn is to never grow old. I now find myself sitting in the yard listening to the birds and watching the clouds almost every day.
From the time I was a youngster, I sat with grandpa and listened to his stories about growing up during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and about the voyages the Swart Family made to America from Germany in 1872 & 1895. These stories fascinated me as a child, and are now party of my history and define who I am. His remarkable memory was honed like the blade of the “old timer” pocketknife he always carried. On any given day, he could tell you where he had been on that day in 1938, and what the weather was like on that day. I hope to retain grandpa’s memories and stories to re-tell to my own children and grandchildren.
As a child growing up in the Depression, he understood what it was like to truly “do without.” Throughout his adult life, he retained the frugality which had been a necessity during those early years. Because of this, he never threw anything away that might have a future use. As a testament to this philosophy of “use it all, wear it out, make it do or do without” the walls of the garage were lined with old bicycle inner tubes, lengths of wire, various plumbing parts, and enamel dishpans full of screws, nails, and bolts. Any bit of baling twine found during his daily walk would be brought back home and wound around the massive ball he had been making for years. During the course of my grandparents’ marriage, they never bought anything on credit. They have shown me, by their example, the importance of saving money and living within one’s means.
My grandparents’ marriage served as an example of the type of love and dedication that can exist between spouses. During his “down time” after breaking his leg, grandma took care of him – and wore herself out in doing so. While in the hospital for his back surgery and the ensuing pneumonia, it was rare that she did not spend the night at the hospital with him. As a young boy, I always wondered why he called grandma “mama.” Grandma explained to me that he had heard my father and uncle call her by this name for so long, that he started doing the same. Now that I have small children at home, I find myself calling my wife “mama” as well.
Grandpa and Grandma became great-grandparents in December 2006, and less than three years later, there were five little great-grandchildren in the family. These are Benjamin Graham, Lila Caroline, Braden Grant, Jackson Davis, and Isabella Reine’. Though grandpa didn’t have much to do with the little babies, things changed when he could get down on the floor to play with them. When grandpa came home from the hospital after breaking his leg, two year-old Graham didn’t quite know what to think about the leg cast. He found a cereal box and put his foot in it, and limping through the house proclaimed, “I broke my leg!” Grandma, “insisting” that he be taken to the hospital, quickly changed his tune, and admitted there was no injury.
In recent years grandpa’s hearing became increasingly worse. It was difficult for him to be engaged in conversations at family dinners and events. As everyone else shared stories and laughs, he would sit at his place at the head of the table unable to take part. To have a conversation, you would have to sit alone with him in a quiet room. And though he was sometimes a man of few words, those words were full of meaning and wisdom.
Over the last year, the man who had stood over six feet tall with broad, proud shoulders and his head held high became the shell of a man – lost in private memories. Though age claimed his body, it never claimed his mind. I see him as he is, but I remember him as he was.
I remember the strong back as he worked late into the evening weeding in the garden, repairing the lawnmower, or painting the house.
I remember his well-worn tools hanging in the garage, each with their own assigned space, and each labeled L.L.S.
I remember helping him turn an old, rickety chair into a new, solid stool that still rests beneath the kitchen table.
I remember him covered with splinters of wood, sitting in a chair, whittling a stick he had picked up from the yard.
I remember his silence. His curiosity. And showing me by ritual what he could not put into words.
I remember him teaching me to see the hidden beauty in everyday life.
My grandfather’s blood flows in my veins. Who he was still lives in me – and in my children – and one day, in my grandchildren. Though he is no longer with us, his life and teachings will continue to influence his descendants for generations.
Father of all, we pray to you for Lewis, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.