A couple of weeks back I wrote a post titled “Ray” about my neighbor across the street. If you read it you may have a picture of Ray in your mind as an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair and while that certainly is a part of the story of Ray’s life it’s only a very small part. Ray died this past Thursday. It seems that Ray had slipped into a coma a couple of days after our visit and never opened his eyes again. In fact we may have been the last people to spend any time with Ray while he was still lucid, who knows?
This weekend we went to a little memorial service for Ray in New Buffalo. Ray and I had shared many stories over the ten years we knew each other, most of them small talk about the town, the neighbors, the weather, his retirement years and other trivial things. This weekend I finally heard some of the more “real” stories about Ray’s life: Bits and pieces from an amazing journey that spanned 88 years. I only wish I had asked sooner, while I could have heard them first hand.
While we were looking at some photos during the wake my girlfriend leaned over to me and said, “we are losing all the last members of the Greatest Generation.” I asked her, “Why do you call it the Greatest Generation?” She then looked at me with that look that she gives me when she can’t believe that I am clueless about something in history. I get that look a lot. If you’re with me in the “clueless” department on this one you can get more info about the term Greatest Generation here. My story on this day though is not about the names of the generations but rather about moments in the life of a young gymnast, a WWII veteran, a son, a husband and a neighbor across the street. These are some snippets about the life of Ray Krapec – card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation.
New Buffalo, Michigan was a part of Ray’s life from the very early days. His family owned the plot of land across the street from my house even back in the days when my grandfather was a small boy. Any story about New Buffalo will at some point lead to the beach and not surprisingly the beach factored largely into Ray’s youth. At the wake we met a guy named Irv who was one of Ray’s sidekicks as a teenager. Irv is now 91 and is the only member of their group to outlive Ray. Irv told us a story about how he and Ray used to take their small sailboat out into the lake and pretend to be lost at sea as they “drifted” ashore at the YWCA camp. The girls would take care of them and help them get back to town, and then wonder why everybody in town called them by name if they had been lost at sea. Teenage boys from all generations are pretty much the same, huh? Remember that picture in your head of Ray in a wheelchair at age 88? Well, try this one on for a different perspective! I believe Ray is on the bottom and I think that is one of his cousins from what I could gather in the scrapbook. Ray was a workout enthusiast even in his seventies as I said in my last post. As a young man he was a flat-out stud! I can only imagine how much fun Ray and his buddies had on New Buffalo’s sandy beach in the 1940s showing off and goofing around. It makes me smile to think of a man I knew only in his late 70s and 80s tearing it up as a teenager and chasing girls on the beaches of the town that I too love so well.
Ray served in WWII as a gunner on a B12 bomber in the 731st Bombing squadron. According to Ray’s son and good old Irv, Ray’s plane was one of only two from his entire squadron that returned from the war without being shot down. Ray and his pilot flew missions from London to Russia bombing Germany and its occupied territories along the way and then flew from Russia to Egypt and bombed some more before refueling and returning to London in what amounted to a non-stop 24-hour mission. Irv added that most of the pilots and gunners dreaded these missions but Ray loved the missions and the energy and the excitement. Somehow I’m not at all surprised. Ray seemed to love everything about living in every moment.
I vaguely remember stories about the fact that the house across the street from me in New Buffalo is not the original house: Ray had rebuilt it after the original house had burnt completely in a winter fire. What I never knew was that Ray’s father died in that fire! On Tuesday January 19, 1965 at 9:00 p.m. the original house across the street from me was gutted by fire long before I was actually across the street. In fact, at the time I was 6 months old, on the other side of the lake, in a Hollywood Tower apartment on Sheridan road. At Ray’s wake they had a vintage copy of the St. Joseph Herald-Press newspaper from the day after the fire. On the front page there were some pretty amazing headlines. In addition to “House Fire Kills New Buffalo Man” about Ray’s dad, there were some other timely stories. Like the one headlined “Governor Romney leads State’s delegation” about Mitt’s dad and his ability to take the spotlight even at democratic sponsored events. Or the one titled “President Urges Change Without Hatred – Uses Mom’s Bible for Inauguration” on the first day of Lyndon B. Johnson’s first full term as president, a term that began 14 months after the assassination of JFK and amidst a mountain civil rights issues, coincidentally on the day of my dad’s 38th birthday. Ray’s dad, Mitt’s dad, my dad…funny how an old paper from 47 years ago can tie so many things together. You know how they sometimes say a picture can tell a profound story about a moment in time? This photo of Ray and his brother George surveying the remains of the house speak more clearly than any words could about the emotions of the moment.
I never met Ray’s wife Z. She died in the spring of 2000 about 4 months before I bought the house on Merchant Street in New Buffalo. Looking back at the photos of their history together you can clearly see they had a love affair that lasted their entire lives together. I saw pictures of their courtship on the beaches, their honeymoon in New Buffalo, their first Christmas together in a second floor apartment in Berwyn, their 25th anniversary and many other events in their lives. In every single one of the photos there was no mistaking the connection between the two of them. During the course of Ray’s wake one of the other neighbors told us a story about how when Z was dying, Ray took her out of the hospital at the very end and drove her in an ambulance down to the beach one last time so they could watch the sunset together before he brought her home…to die in her own bed. My suspicion is that if you could have asked Ray on the day before he died what his greatest moment in life was he would have said “anything that involved Z”.
During Ray’s wake the local VFW group came and paid their respects. They also performed what at first I thought was a “21 gun salute” but today I discovered what they actually performed was a “Three Volley Salute” where a team of riflemen fire three rounds each into the air. The spent brass casings are gathered and one from each round is given to the next of kin to fold into the American flag. After the casings are folded in, the flag is never to be unfolded again. The three shells signify Duty, Honor, and Country. Ray definitively embodied all three.
Some might say if Ray had been lucky enough to have been born in the information age he might have become a movie star. What with James Dean-esque good looks, athletic ability, the body of an Adonis, a politician’s charisma and a Bob Hope-like wit? Who knows? I would argue that Ray was exactly where he was supposed to be in time and my girlfriend and I are often envious of the lives of people who were “lucky” enough to have lived in the Greatest Generation. This morning I woke up and looked across the street like I often do. The Sun was shining, there was a light snow cover on the ground. The house across the street sat there looking pretty much the same as it always has. In some ways it might have looked a bit more empty to me without Ray sitting in the chair in the window like he often did, yet in so many ways it looked so full to me at the same time. Full of great history, full of great love, full of great memories and still full of the energy of a great man who lived a beautiful and simple life. One of the last of the Greatest Generation. I will miss you, Ray, but I can’t help but think you are back where you belong and at peace. A life full of stories, pictures in time, and all the letters of the alphabet…from A to Z. I might be tempted here to tell people where and why you wanted your ashes sprinkled to show a glimpse into your wit but I think I’ll leave that to myself for now. Maybe if someone asks me I’ll tell them in person just to be sure nothing gets lost between the lines in translation. That way also I can see the smile on their faces and think of your smile. Rest well, you young stud. Rest well.