Jack. Boss. Captain. Commander. There are a lot of names Grant C. Young has gone by that can’t be found on his 92-year-old birth certificate.
Decades later, might I recommend Steel, a tribute to his traplike mind, still sharp, despite bearing some rust and trying to lock down more memories and stories than I might amass during two lifetimes.
As Jack tells these stories, his cadence is punctuated by an unmistakable laugh that insists he adored his 30 years in the Navy and the hundreds who served under him.
But while his body was at sea for months at a time (13 years, 11 months and 8 days, to be exact), his heart was always somewhere where he was known by his favorite nicknames:
“I’m lucky. You’re looking at a guy who had a whole bunch of honeymoons,” Jack says, his face lighting up at the very thought of his bride of 70 years, Ethel. “Every time I came home was a honeymoon, kid. She taught my children to love me and to worry about me when I was gone. They were hugging me, and it was a love mass every time I came home.”
As a civilian, there were a lot of things I had to ask Jack, because I’ll never know what it’s like to unleash the torpedo that sinks a destroyer. What it’s like to swim for your life in an icy body of water, rapidly losing feeling of every part of your body but your eyes.
What the deck of an aircraft carrier feels like as kamikazes slam into it. What it’s like to be in charge of 750 men. What it’s like to be a war hero several times over.
Those gripping stories have been told in various forms of media. In fact, you can hear many of them in the latest installment of the People’s Voice podcast.
But roots don’t grow in water or air. And I can relate to how good it feels to be loved on the soil where you planted your seeds. So I’ll primarily stick with Jack’s life on American soil.
Funny, the serendipitous courses we travel in this life.
Jack’s mother died when he was just 13 months old, and he went to live with his grandparents in Dixon while his father worked in Chicago and “sorted himself out,” in Jack’s words.
A neighbor of his grandparents was a National Guardsman who gave Jack a tour on the celebratory last day of a 2-week training event at Camp Grant in Rockford. When a few old biplanes flew overhead and landed, taxiing up a lot of dust and “showing off,” let’s just say they got the 5-year-old’s attention. Especially when his grandpa lifted him up to see all the “funny clocks.”
“I said to my grandpa, ‘I’m gonna fly one of these things before I’m done,’” Jack says, breaking into that infectious laugh.
Kitty-corner from his grandparents lived a young man named Howard. When Jack would try to tag along with his uncle, Cleve, and the other older boys to go down to the river, only to get beaten up, there was Howard to scoop up Jack and bring him along.
Howard also took Jack on his paper route and let him sling papers before he left for the University of Illinois. The catch was that Howard’s family was poor, so he hitchhiked to the campus for 3 years, before, while trying to hitch a ride in front of the post office, seeing a sandwich board that read: Join the Navy and Fly. He took the sign up on its offer, and, years later, Howard would wear that pristine white uniform when he came home for a visit.
“I’d say, ‘I wanna do that,’” Jack remembers, “and Howard would say, ‘Sure you can. Sure you can.’”
As serendipity would have it, Howard would one day be Jack’s commanding officer while he was in a reconnaissance squadron.
While those young men inspired Jack to join the Navy, the neighbor who changed his life more than any other lived across a gravel road in Amboy.
Jack’s father had married a girl from Dixon and returned to the farm in Amboy, and Jack moved back in with him.
Across that gravel road lived a red-headed 8-year-old named Ethel. She and Jack fit together like peas and carrots, and they would be married Dec. 27, 1943. Whenever Jack set his heart on something, he wouldn’t let it out of his crosshairs.
They had four children: three girls and a boy, eventually leading to nine great-grandkids.
“She was a wonderful woman, a farm girl who can do anything,” Jack said. “She put up with me for 70 years. …”
And that doesn’t include those first 14, going to school together – she first found out his real name was Grant at graduation – and experiencing the magic that is true love.
Sometimes the greatest example of such love is letting your mate fulfill their destiny. For Jack, that was going from an enlisted man to a captain. From ensign to go-to guy for the chief of operations with the Pentagon, with which Jack served two tours. He met and flew with George Bush, then a fellow ensign. He made 891 aircraft carrier landings, many of them in the dead of the night in perilous weather.
Jack easily recalls the best advice he got upon enlisting.
“My chief who signed me up, he told me, ‘Keep your mouth shut and your bowels open. Work along, and do the best you can,’” Jack remembers.
With that simple advice, he grinded out promotion after promotion and became an irreplaceable leader in the Navy.
Several times during our 2-hour conversation, Jack mentions how the Navy is all about ships. Learning every job that makes them hum, how to navigate them.
Toward the end of his second tour with the Pentagon, he received a Christmas card in December 1969 from the Bureau of Personnel. What a gift, indeed. He’d been selected to command his own ship.
But, with sizable sums both he and Ethel had inherited, he had bought a farm in Lanark in 1962. Another note came along, telling him he’d need to stay in the same Pentagon position he’d been in since 1967 for 1 more year, as austerity was upon the Navy. They were putting more ships to bed – “Mothballs,” Jack uses the term for the third time during our chat.
That helped made up Jack’s mind. All three of his girls had left home, one had married, another was about to, and the other was working in Washington, D.C. But his son, Grant, was just about to start high school.
If Jack took over that ship, by the time he’d drop anchor for good in the States, his boy would be wrapping up high school.
“I knew I’d be missing a lot here,” Jack says, no detectable regret in his tone. “As much as I wanted to be commander of that ship, I’d already driven ships and served on a lot of them.”
So when Ethel picked him up at the airport in Alexandria, Virginia, he broke the good news.
“She said, ‘What? You’re retiring? Without going to the ship?’” Jack said. “I said, ‘Yep.’ And she said, ‘Well, bless your heart.’”
He laughs. Then he laughs some more, fondly staring ahead, as if he can see the sheer joy on Ethel’s face the day he told her he was home for good.
Today, Ethel relies on hospice care. Jack doesn’t mince words about his failing health, cancer already having claimed part of his left lung.
To “save our kids the agony,” he’s already purchased two beautiful Wausau brown marble gravestones at his grandfather’s plot at Oakwood Cemetery in Dixon.
“We’re going to get to them very soon, I’m sure,” Jack says. He’s unmistakably at peace, as a few seconds silently pass by. “The final home is all set.”
Why shouldn’t he be at peace? It would be tough to find a man who’s done more with 92 years.
“It was an exciting life, you know?” Jack says. “Exciting. But I still remember that chief. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your bowels open. And I’ve done that.”