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Off the Beaten Path: James H. Pyne, One of the Greats.

November is here and Thanksgiving is upon us. It’s the time of year when we all look around and take stock of the things we should be thankful for. This year that measure of things is going to look quite different for me. You see, this August I lost the most important thing in my life – my Dad. He was 96 years old and died peacefully in his sleep. I’m thankful that he got to live such a long and healthy life, and that I got to have him around for so long, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of loss. My column this month is a tribute to him.

He was 96 years old and died peacefully in his sleep.

Overall, I think Dad’s life was very good, but it certainly wasn’t easy. His mom died when he was very young, and he lived a hard scrabble life growing up on a farm in Monroe County during the Great Depression. He was part of a large family (17 kids!) that often didn’t really have enough to eat or any decent clothes to wear. He had a stepmother who treated him very badly, and his father, although being a schoolteacher and a preacher, had a downturn somewhere along the line and began drinking for several years.

Dad had to work hard around the farm to help raise food for the family but scarcely got his fill when it was finally offered up at the table. Most of the time he never had any textbooks to take to school, and once he had a text with the first half torn away, forcing him to wait half the year before he could follow along with the lessons. For school lunch, he and his siblings gathered around a tin bucket into which his stepmother had placed a heap of pinto beans and some biscuits, the latter of which turned blue from contact with the metal. And once, he told me, he was sent to the store while wearing a pair of pants that had most of the rear gone out of them, forcing him to move around the store without ever showing people his backside in order to save himself terrible embarrassment. With all these factors weighing heavy on him, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

Not that all his youth was such a terrible affair. He also spoke to me about carefree times wandering through the woods on Baker Mountain, hunting and fishing and daydreaming. Monroe County during the 1930s would have certainly been a great place to grow up in these respects, and it still is for that matter.

 

But when World War ll came about, he was eager to volunteer, and escaping poverty was definitely one of the reasons. I always thought it was very telling that, as hard as Army life was, he found the food and the clothes they provided to be a definite step up from what he was used to.

He spent months in training at various locations, including Texas and Georgia, before shipping out for Great Britain.  Once in England, he spent more months in training in the small village of Swanage, located on the English Channel. Aside from the vigorous training, he spent many happy days there cavorting about the English countryside on foot and by bike. All of this was building up to that fateful day, which went on to become one of the landmark dates in U.S. history, June 06, 1944, otherwise known as D-Day.

His landing craft was damaged and sank, and he had to make his way to shore without even knowing how to swim.

When that morning finally arrived, Dad and the other men set out across a stormy, windswept sea, arriving at the beaches of Normandy, France shortly after 6 am. His landing craft was damaged and sank, and he had to make his way to shore without even knowing how to swim. Many men, he said, died before they even made it out of the water.

Once he made it to the shore of Omaha Beach, he faced a nightmarish situation that one can scarcely imagine. American ships were supposed to have already cratered the beach with their huge guns to provide foxholes for the soldiers to hide in, but the plan had gone horribly wrong, and the beach was untouched. He and the other soldiers faced a 300 yard stretch to the high bluffs that overlooked the beach, which were occupied by Nazi soldiers bearing down on them with heavy machine guns.

Imagine that – imagine having to cross three football fields loaded with land mines and barbed wire, all the while having heavy machine gun fire raining down upon you from high above. It always amazed me to think that Dad had gone through that, and I was always very, very respectful of his military service.

Dad was with the 26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One).

The soldiers did their best to fight their way across this killing field, and by the end of the day the ones lucky enough to have survived had established a beachhead. Omaha, it turned, was the deadliest beach of the invasion, with over 2,400 casualties.

Dad was with the 26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One). From Omaha he continued on as the leader of a three-man Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) team, fighting his way across three countries. He once told me that he crawled all the way across France and Belgium on his stomach, something he bet few people had ever done.

The war came to an end for Dad when he was shot in the leg during urban combat in the city of Aachen, Germany.

The war came to an end for Dad when he was shot in the leg during urban combat in the city of Aachen, Germany. From there he was flown to Paris and London, finally ending up in the Ashford General Hospital in White Sulphur Springs, which is now The Greenbrier Hotel. He spent six months there, recuperating and playing golf, and, as always, flirting with the nurses, before finally being released from the military.

During the post war years, he met my mom and started a family, eventually raising nine kids, of which I am the youngest. In the early 1950s he became an apprentice auto body technician and eventually opened his own shop, named, aptly enough, the Poor Boy Body Shop. He was known for the quality of his work, but on the off chance that he did make a mistake, he would fix it for free.

He was part of what has been called the “Greatest Generation” of Americans.

Perhaps it was all the trials and tribulations in Dad’s life that made him such a strong man, for strong he was.  He always faced whatever problems were coming squarely in the face and dealt with them. He was part of what has been called the “Greatest Generation” of Americans. It has long been said that tough times create strong men, and I think that is true.

Dad was also a very honest and good man. In all my years I never heard anyone say a negative word about him. He seemed to be universally liked and respected. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he always had a smile on his face. He was the kind of man people could make a deal with based solely on a handshake and never worry once that the deal wouldn’t be honored. That’s a rarity today, I think. All these things made me very proud that he was my Dad.

In a few weeks’ time my family and I are going to be gathering at my Dad’s house to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

In a few weeks’ time my family and I are going to be gathering at my Dad’s house to eat Thanksgiving dinner. In the corner where Dad would have sat will be an empty chair. I must say that I’m not looking forward to it, as I’m sure it will be very sad and strange, but I will try to count my blessings and move forward just like Dad would have done. If your parents are still alive, count yourself blessed indeed. Be sure to go see them and spend some time with them, for one day your opportunity to do so will be gone forever.

 – Barry Pyne, HashtagWV #137. November 2021. Contact the author at offthebeatenpathman@gmail.com

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