It was meeting John McGraw that showed me how much The Memoir Project was going to change my life. When I began working with the Fulton Library on the Project in 2013, I thought helping people write a memoir of Fulton would be fun and challenging, but I never thought it would influence my outlook on life. John McGraw showed me how it could.
I met John when Betty Mauté, the Library’s director at the time, and I were visiting various groups in Fulton to promote the idea of The Memoir Project. We spoke at local coffee hours and service club meetings, explaining that we were looking for people willing to write a short story about their Fulton memories. When we visited Towpath Towers about a dozen people showed up, including John, who sat quietly through the program. As we were getting ready to leave, he approached us.
“I’d like to be part of your Project,” John offered, “but I can’t see very well, so I wouldn’t be able to write my story down.” John proceeded to tell Betty and me a little about himself, how he’d worked for many years at Sealright, served in the Army during World War II, and that, for a while, he volunteered as an auxiliary police officer for our city. “By the way,” John added, as he summed up his share about himself, “I’m 92 years old.”
Betty and I assured John that we’d get his story into memoir form. I agreed to meet with him, tape record his memories and then organize them into a narrative. As we left the Towers meeting, I thought that I’d met someone who didn’t let age slow them down, but I was only beginning to learn from John’s unique perspective on life.
Soon after, I met with John to tape record his story. My first question had to do with Fulton’s Auxiliary Police and here’s some of what John shared:
“When I joined the Fulton Auxiliary Police Force, a Mr. Harold Taylor was its captain. I knew Mr. Taylor from my work at Sealright, where he also worked and where we formed a friendship. I was 27 years old when I started on the Force and was a member of it for about 15 years, beginning in 1948 and ending in the early ‘60s.
“Before we began as auxiliary police officers, we had some training that took place on the police firing range. We also got some training from the chief of police at the time, Chief Stewart. He conducted some sessions, instructing us about police work. These were mostly lectures, but, one evening, Chief taught us a lesson in a different way. During our class, a man walked in through one door, crossed the room and went out another door. After that, Chief Stewart asked ‘OK, who was that?’ We all looked at each other, because we didn’t know. Then Chief asked ‘What did he have on? What did he look like? Was he tall? Short?’ Then he said, ‘This is what you’ve got to pay attention to and learn. When you see a stranger like that, you’ve got to pay attention.’ ”
John must have really paid attention to those instructions, because throughout our interview he told anecdote after anecdote, each with a brilliant ability to recall detail. He shared so much about his work with the Auxiliary and about the rest of his life. Ninety-two years old, I kept thinking, and he puts me to shame with his vivid memory.
Meeting John was a great experience and it was an honor to work with him on the Project, but my time with him wasn’t over. After that first Memoir Project turned out successfully, the Library decided to sponsor it annually. Each year, we’d head out to Fulton’s groups and senior residencies to recruit writers and each year John showed up, even though he told us he didn’t have anything to offer on that year’s Project theme. Finally, in 2015, when we announced our Project theme would be about World War II veterans, John said he had another story.
Now approaching 95 years old, John met with one of our Project coordinators, Joe Abbate, to tell his World War II story. Here’s John explaining a particularly sensitive part of his duty when his troop landed in Omaha Beach where some horrendous battles had taken place. John’s job was to search for landmines that were still active:
“One of the first things I discovered was something called a shoe mine, a small, wooden mine with a block of dynamite inside it. Whenever we found this device, we had to start using our bayonets and get on our hands and knees to probe for the mines. We had mine detectors, but shoe mines weren’t detectable. Those had to be dug out by hand. When I found one, I dug the dirt away and felt around it. I dug and I dug until I could get my fingers under it. Then I felt around to be sure there was nothing else with it, and when I lifted it from the ground, I had a live mine in my hands.”
As we worked on getting John’s first-hand account of World War II into the Memoir Project book, I reflected on the service John has given over his life; first to our country, then to our city, and finally to people like me, who look for inspiration wherever they can find it. Thanks, John, for offering yours.