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Nov.1 – Happy Birthday, Dad.

dad in formal shotToday is my father’s birthday: John Paul Dabravalskas, son of Ursula Blasis Dabravalskas and Karolys (Karl) Dabravalskas, born Nov. 1, 1917, died September 19, 2005. 

He and I weren’t close when I was growing up, but as an adult, I’m grateful for him. I wish that we’d have had a chance to get to know each other better, once I was an adult and more understanding of the fact that he was thirty years older than my bio-mother, the first son, and first American born son of Lithuanian immigrants, a man who lived through the depression, served in two wars, and had his military career side lined because he cared more for the welfare of the men serving under his command than the general he served under. (I come by my lack of diplomacy honestly). To say that there were communication and cultural issues between us would be an understatement when I was growing up! But he was ok. by his generation’s standards, he was a good father, a good provider (he worked like a dog). I think I was lucky in a way to have been his daughter. 

My dad was quiet and kept to himself, taught me to play chess (brutally — my chess technique I mean, not his teaching. He gave no quarter though, even when I was a child and to this day I play a mean, mean game of chess as does my brother). He liked reading about ‘unexplained mysteries,’ ‘cryptids,’ and weird things, and was very, very frugal (which was annoying as shit as a child!). After Korea, he worked the rest of his working life in Ordinance at Aberdeen Proving Ground and I remember when I was very, very small (maybe four-ish?) playing on the tanks there. They have several different types of tanks on display on the grounds (or did when I was a child in the seventies) and I have distinct memories of climbing on them. He met my mom at the Proving Ground as well. She worked there as a secretary when she was in her early twenties. 

Like my maternal grandfather, my father served in WWII (they did not serve together nor even know each other)  and then in Korea. He never spoke about his war experiences (though he always encouraged me to learn languages. When I was in elementary school, he’d bring home military manuals for learning German and French. Ironically, he would never speak Lithuanian at home. He was the generation that was encouraged to speak English and ‘be American,’ also, my bio-mom didn’t speak Lithuanian. I regret that I didn’t grow up bilingual but I suppose I’m making up for it now by learning a pacel of ‘dead’ languages. lol). Before he died, he had several years of dementia and would have flashbacks to his experiences in WWII, which scared the nurses sometimes. He died well and the last thing I remember is that he wanted to be sure his children were ok before he died. 

So hail to my father, John Dabravalskas, on this his birthday. 

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One of the Fallen

Every so often I return to genealogy research. I have to be careful – I can get sucked down the genealogy whirlpool for hours and hours or even days if I’m not careful. Ancestry.com recently partnered with Fold3.com which allows one to search military records and somewhere in a couple of hours of random searching, I discovered that my great grandmother’s nephew had fought and died in WWI.

I don’t know much about him. I’ve got queries out to Heffner genealogists but I’ve made a complete hash of my ancestry.com chart (I was tired one night and merged information for him, his father, and another John Wesley Heffner so now I need to go sort through all the documents and sort it out, a task I’m not looking forward to doing), but here’s what I know.

Wesley Heffner was born on April 30, 1898 in Chanceford Township, PA. He was the son of Amos Heffner and his wife Lottie Ardella (“Della”) Heffner nee Welsh.

He served in Hoboken and was fighting in France from June 14, 1917 to June 5, 1918 — according to his mother’s application for a military pension (apparently if a young man was unmarried, their mothers could apply for a pension at that time, or at least so it seems) and went overseas with Pershing’s first contingent. He was a private first class in Company B, 26th Infantry. He did not come home again.

I have so many questions, so many things that I would like to know about him. Is he buried in France where he died or is he buried here in the states and if so, where? Are there any extant photos? What made him enlist?

When Pershing’s forces first went over it was standard operating procedure to bury the soldiers in the land where they fell. This didn’t sit well with the folks back home and pressure was put on the military to bring their sons back. In an article that made me cry, about WWI, burying our dead, and bringing them home again we’re given a vivid picture of General Pershing facing the atrocious body count of that ‘great’ war:

“THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.”

Read the full article here

Bring them home. I would like to know if my great great uncle was ever brought home.

There is so much I don’t know but at least I have a name. At least I know he exists and I know he fought and I know that he died somewhere on a bloody field in France. It’s a start. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

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Edit: before I posted this, I actually found a picture of his grave. My great great uncle is buried in Chanceford Township, PA, in St. Luke’s Lutheran Cemetery. I will have a chance to visit his grave, and that of his parents when next I go down to MD. I’ll make a detour to PA. This doesn’t necessarily mean that his body is there – it could have been just a grave with the body actually buried in a field in France, but all things considered, and given what I know of my family, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s his actual in situ grave. I wonder now whether he was shipped back immediately or only after the war…and what it must have been like for his family, first to receive notification of his death (sent to his father Amos) and then his body. How was he remembered by his brothers and sisters (he had 14 siblings) and what stories might they have told?

 

November is Also for the Dead

dad wwiiEvery November I dedicate myself to honoring the military dead. I do rituals and offerings on an almost nightly basis and I try to post something every day throughout the month here on my blog in some way, shape, or form related to the military dead. I chose November for this for two reasons: it’s a very Odinic month, specifically Odin as God of the Hunt, and Lord of Hosts** and in the US Veterans Day falls the second week of the month. For those and many other reasons, this month has always resonated with me very strongly as a time to remember our military veterans and our military dead. I’m going to start this month of remembrance off by honoring my own father, John P. Dabravalskas (1917-2005), a veteran of WWII, Korea, and career military until his retirement.

Firstly, today is the anniversary of his birth. Happy birthday, dad. I don’t remember us ever making a big deal about his birthday when I was a child and I think that’s a shame. He worked hard all his life to provide for his family, really worked like a dog when I was small. It would have been nice to see him celebrated with a bit of levity.

A little bit about my father: his parents emigrated from Lithuania in the early 20th century and he was born a couple of years thereafter in Albany, NY. He joined the army in 1942, specializing in ordinance. He served in two wars, WWII and Korea, neither of which he ever spoke about either with me or with my brother. After his war years, he worked in ordinance at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland until retirement. Thank the Gods he was too old for active duty by the time Vietnam came around. He would have willingly gone, seeing it as his duty to fight for his country.

His work in ordinance rendered him deaf as he got older, something that perpetually frustrated him. Before he died, he had dementia and flashbacks to his battlefield experiences, and I’ll just let that stand with the comment that there are some experiences that scar the psyche so deeply that one never, ever escapes them. I don’t recall any of that coming out when I was growing up, but as he approached his death and the filters and controls on his mind were slowly peeled away, every once in awhile it would burble up giving a glimpse of the terror he must have felt as a young man in the midst of a gruesome war.

He and I always had a vexed relationship. We were both stubborn and probably too damned much alike to get along. He also was a child of his generation and I think it was hard for him to have a daughter who didn’t easily conform to expected gender roles. We used to fight like cats and dogs. He taught me to play chess, encouraged my interest in languages, sometimes mitigated the discord with my biological mother, and worked hard to make sure that his children had a chance at good educations. He also gave me a fierce work ethic and deep pride in my ancestry. I changed my last name when I was eighteen (legally) mostly for professional reasons, as I was a professional ballet dancer at the time, and I think that hurt him deeply. His nearly dying words to dad in korea dramaedme expressed concern that I was safe and secure and doing well in my life. He wanted to be sure I was happy.

It took awhile after he died before I could properly honor him on my ancestor shrine and as part of my ancestral court. We had things to work out. It helped that I assisted in prepping his body for cremation (and perhaps his dying gift to me was a sudden, stark awareness of the miasma contact with the dead can bring) and was able to do rituals to aid his passage. (To this day I’m not sure why the funeral home allowed me in there). Certainly there is a grace in handling the dead.

So today I honor John Paul Dabravalskas, a good man, a steady father, a veteran, and part of the “best” generation, those men and women who in the forties went to war against Hitler. May my father be hailed. May he be remembered; and may he find joy and homecoming with his ancestors always.

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** It occurred to me that while this actually is one of Odin’s heiti, it’s also an epithet commonly applied to the Christian god, and when Catholics use this to refer to their God, it occurred to me also that it’s quite a clever pun: lord of hosts….lord of a hoard of battle hungry warriors or lord of communion wafers….and this is why I’m probably going to hell. LOL