By Magen McCrarey
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
While gazing out the front window of his suburbial Meadowcrest Drive home, I imagine my grandfather is contemplating world peace, or maybe just when the mailman’s coming. Either way, in my opinion, he’s a wonderful soul. Today, my family and I will be celebrating his 90th birthday.
Fred Vincent McCrarey was born in 1923 in Tinsley, Ky., and was one of nine child children — three of them half-siblings. He was always looking out for his “poor as church mice” family, making sure none of his siblings went hungry. So he worked on the farm of a coal miner for about a ream of 10 cents a day with a friend. The two set fences from sun-up to sun-down, and did whatever the man asked of them. To make up for the little pay they received, he said the coal miner’s wife was an astounding cook and always made them the best supper.
“If it wasn’t for her, we would have starved,” he said.
At 17, he labored in the coal mines of Bell County for a year and a half and was a truck driver for the Civilian Conservation (CCC), building fire trails for fire fighters. He admits that his childhood sweetheart was named Delfina and he was sweet on her because she was a girl and pretty — she had to be. He then finished up school in the eighth grade and enlisted in the U.S. Army at 19 years old. He asked his family to save a portion of the money he sent home to purchase his first car.
He left home for World War II. He was aboard one of the 62 U.S. ships that were in a convoy headed for the beaches of Ireland and England while the Nazi German submarines successfully sunk one early on. His time on the ship was terrible, he said. He got sea sick, ate too many boiled eggs and had his share of roughs seas, but one thing he didn’t know how to prepare for was when he landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and later that year ended up right in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge.
“A lot of people got killed in that. I wasn’t a tank driver but I was a driver, so some of the tank driver’s got killed and I had to drive a tank. I had a driver and crew on there...eight men,” he said as he looked back on his time as a soldier, while resting in his living room recliner a few recent weeks ago.
“Went through a little town and there were people laying dead all over, German soldiers and American soldiers,” he continued. “We had orders not to stop. I was running over the people and I could feel their bones crack. A lot of the times, I was ahead of the front lines as a forward observer…we survived.”
My grandpa then painted a hauntingly, true picture of the Holocaust when he stated that he pushed forward in the tank to a town where they captured Germans and discovered storage facilities stacked with bodies like cordwood with a thick layer of lime on top. There were times when he came upon Germans who reminded him of himself, and instead of following orders to shoot, he let them go. He said he did this because he hoped they too would do the same.
Each year as our family nears the Thanksgiving holiday, my grandpa will account the time when the Germans bombed their Thanksgiving dinner, and it gets better with each re-telling. That was the one and only time that he could fortify his belief that cooked turkey could, in fact, actually…fly.
Coming out of Frankfort, Germany, while driving a delivery truck a few weeks after the war in 1945, my grandfather came upon a car wreck that was put in the history books. He saw with his own eyes the accident that paralyzed General George S. Patton from the neck down, which caused him to die of an embolism on Dec. 21. After the war, my grandfather chose to help with the release German prisoners of war and help with the rebuilding of cities and towns. He admits his favorite place to be on leave was France. Perhaps it was the countryside that had an admirable allure or it could have been the women. If it was the women, I’m sure they were pretty — they had to be.
When he arrived home to Bell County, the McCrarey family had not saved enough for him to buy his first car because times were hard. So he worked once again to save up enough to purchase his first, a 1939 Buick. He drove north and began work at General Motors in Detroit, Mich.. He worked there for 35 years as a job setter for Rolling Mills. He met my grandmother while she was pouring coffee at a restaurant diner and, well, the rest is history. He said he married her because, “she caught my eye, I guess,” as he cracked a smile.
Three children later, he now has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He said his life’s greatest accomplishments are a letter signed by Harry S. Truman for his time in service and, of course, his family. He will always be known to me as the man with black framed glasses, an ironed button-up shirt with neatly pressed pants, as if he’s still in the Army. But he will always make sure he’s neatly shaven, never failing to smell like the scent of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco and Old Spice shaving cream.
Since I was a child I’ve always enjoyed cuddling up to his chest and passing the day away on a porch or a comfy couch as he sits, contemplating world peace or maybe just waiting for the mailman to arrive. Life has been hard for Fred Vincent McCrarey, but it also has been good. Happy Birthday, grandpa.