It’s something of a poorly-followed tradition around these parts that I take a week off in June for my birthday. I rarely actually take that week, but if you like, you can consider this short, personal entry as that miniature vacation.
This week, I want to talk about my Uncle Warren.
He was technically my great-uncle – he was my grandfather’s brother, the youngest of eight. People in my family jokingly refer to Warren and his siblings as the Dalton Gang, a nod to the famous Old West family. The historical Daltons were split into lawmen and outlaws, and the Dalton side of my family is actually related to the lawmen side. Which makes sense – Warren was mischievous, but there wasn’t a touch of outlaw in him.
I, of course, only ever knew him as a kindly old man. But he had a long life before I came along, and I feel so blessed that I got to hear about some of it. When I was growing up, my Uncle Warren and Auntie Ann lived in Virginia, and we would visit at least once a year. They had a friendly dog named Cindy, and Warren had a collection of books that blew my little mind. Mainly, they were Louis L’Amour westerns – he and my grandfather both loved that guy’s work, and Warren owned every book he ever wrote. That’s about 90 books, all told. If I concentrate, I can still smell the basement where he kept those books.
My grandfather died when I was in school. He’d always told me that he was a cook in the Navy, and I’d always believed him. I can’t precisely remember, but it was either at his wake, or shortly after, that my Uncle Warren took me aside to tell me that wasn’t exactly true. The two Dalton brothers served together on a destroyer called the Lamson during World War II, and while my grandfather did cook meals, that wasn’t all he did. My uncle was a radar operator, and my grandfather was a gunner.
About 10 years ago, Warren shared his WWII memories with me. He wrote most of them down, but we also had a number of really good conversations about that time in his life. The ship he was on was nicknamed the “Lucky Lamson.” It missed out on Pearl Harbor by a day or so, and through its entire tenure in the Pacific, it narrowly escaped sinking about a dozen times. Ships on either side of the Lamson met with watery ends, and more than once the ship needed some vital repair that kept it from going on ill-fated missions.
Throughout their time in the service, the Dalton brothers watched out for each other. Warren ended up spending 22 years in the Navy, and working for Raytheon when he got out. Smart, smart man, my uncle. He married my aunt about a month before I was born – we’ve always joked that I was the youngest guest at their wedding.
If I had to pick one thing to summarize my relationship with my Uncle Warren, though, that thing would be chess. It’s a game I love, and Warren taught me to play it. He was a chess master – he had books on chess, and I read some of them, trying to up my game. I must have played 200 games against Warren over the years, and I never beat him. The last time I played him was about two years ago, when he was 89 years old or so. He trounced me.
When I was a teenager, Warren and I played a game of chess through the mail. I can’t remember how long it went on – months, maybe a year. But I remember that other interests pulled me away, and we never finished that game. I feel bad about that. I should have kept it going. I mean, Warren would have won, no question. But I should have kept it going.
My Uncle Warren has had a tough time of it lately. He had a stroke about a year ago, and the doctors initially thought he’d had another about a month back. In the end, he contracted double pneumonia, and passed away in the hospital on Friday, June 9. He was 91 years old.
He had a full military funeral service at Massachusetts National Cemetery, which was lovely. Two active duty sailors stood guard at his casket, and they folded a flag and handed it to my aunt. After the ceremony, my aunt – who needs a wheelchair to get around – asked to be pushed closer to the casket. She kissed it softly, and grasped tightly to the handhold on the side, as if trying to keep him here. It broke my heart.
I’ve decided I have to tell the story of the Lucky Lamson somehow. It’s important for a couple of reasons. In a general sense, these stories are disappearing, along with the generation that lived them, and we need to hang on to them. But in a more specific and personal sense, I just want people to remember my Uncle Warren, and know what he did serving his country. Like his famous ancestors, he was one of the good guys.
One last salute for Warren Dalton, the last of the Dalton Gang. May he rest in peace.
See you in line Tuesday morning.