Years ago when I finished Plebe Summer — the training program required of all incoming freshmen to the United States Naval Academy — my grandfather presented me with what has become my most prized possession. It's valuable to me not just for its probable auction price and its unique place in history but for the incredible story behind it.
A young, first-generation Italian American, Frank Pescatore reacted like so many others to the events that took place on Dec. 7, 1941. He beat down the door of the U.S. Navy recruiter's office as the sun rose the morning after. Bags already packed, full of patriotism and indignation, and hair cropped low (a harbinger of alopecia to come, maybe?), my grandpa was eager to join the fleet and strike a blow for Uncle Sam. With the hard-won blessing of my great-grandmother, he shipped off for the accelerated boot camp the Navy had started. A tinkerer by habit, it was little surprise to anyone that Frank Pescatore was assigned to a naval construction battalion, the Seabees.
Grandpa plied up and down the Pacific as Admirals Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Raymond Spruance, and Ernest King fought the world's greatest sea war against the Empire of the Rising Sun. Rising to the rank of Petty Officer, Second Class (the Navy's version of an Army Sergeant), he was lucky enough to have his own Jeep during the Battle of Okinawa and its aftermath. It was this simple privilege that brought me my prize and this story.
Sitting in his rusty Jeep one morning on some unnamed beach in Okinawa, an army intelligence officer — a captain to my grandfather's recollection — approached Petty Officer Pescatore. He gave a lazy salute, then tossed his dirty boots and weary feet back on the dash where they had been resting. "I need your Jeep, sailor," Grandpa remembers the young officer saying. My grandfather was less-than-compliant and continued his supine post. Another order from the officer, another chuckle from the enlisted man. Ultimately, the IO must have realized he was up against Italian stubbornness, and began to bargain. "What'll it take for you to give me that Jeep?"
And that's how I ended up with one of the original copies of the Japanese surrender on Okinawa. I have the urgent dispatches the officer had just carried away from the armistice table. Taking custody of the calligraphed parchment, Grandpa whipped out his own pen and scribbled a few words to his mother that put a poignant closing paragraph to his wartime adventure.
"As the bombs burst overhead and the guns fell silent, my heart turned toward you, Mom, back in the States. I will carry this paper with me for the rest of my life — for this document many a buddy of mine lies dead on Okinawa."
"They were the bravest men I ever knew," Grandpa added, a tear streaming down his palsied cheek that day in August when he handed me the yellowing scrolls.
As we laid my grandfather to rest yesterday, more than a few similar tears found their way down my own cheek. I remembered this story and thought about the many lessons this great man had taught me along the way.
What's the connection to this blog? To emergency medicine and my residency journey? I guess it's the perennial thought that our life stories are so often shaped in the moments we least expect, or by the daily grind we so rarely reflect upon. The second year of residency is nearing its close, and I'll start the next academic year just a little more experienced, a little wiser, and a lot more weary.
I'm tasked with the honor of chief resident, even though it feels like just moments since donning the long white coat for the first time. Even though those first days of intern year seem like just yesterday, it took a cold, rainy morning and a moment of mixed reflection to realize that there is no defining moment in store and no transformative event to prepare me for the year ahead.
Every instant of residency so far has played its part in my own story, one I'm so fortunate to get to share here. Even as I said goodbye, my grandfather had left me one last lesson.