My Great-Grandfather’s Death Certificate
{ posted: Tuesday, 24 April, 2018 at 1:06pm // views: 178 // words: 571 }

Thomas Ward McCullough, just before the War.

Finally received a copy of my great-grandfather’s death certificate, having been curious about the cause of his demise for years. As a 23-year-old private in the 42nd Artillery, his company was hit with mustard gas in the Second Battle of the Marne. Family lore says that he only survived by pulling the mask from a felled comrade. My grandfather recalled him being persistently sick–his standard answer to “how are you?” being “About as sick as I’ve been in a month of Sundays.”

The studies I’ve found on the link between mustard gas and lung cancer aren’t compelling, not to mention the fact that he was an asthmatic who regularly smoked Bull Durham, though his passing at the age of 52 puts him a bit on the young side of the CDC’s claim that smoking reduces life expectancy by a decade.

The Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys, California (in which he died) was a typically Californian sprawl of symmetrical stucco buildings planted in the middle of farm land during World War II. It had served as military hospital and Prisoner of War Camp and would close by 1950.

The Birmingham Veterans Administration Hospital’s 114 buildings spread across 146 acres in Van Nuys, California. Image via California State Military Museums

He came to California from Georgia only shortly before entering the hospital–just long enough to take up work as a hotel maintenance man. Maybe a sad fall from a life in law enforcement, maybe a welcome relief. Either way, he entered the hospital on December 10th, 1946. 5 weeks later, they removed his cancerous right lung, and two months after that, he succumbed to the metastases that had engulfed his brain.

It does strike me as sad that he left the world over two thousand miles away from his nearest family member. I probably read too much into things, but I’ve always wondered whether the exile didn’t stem from some vague feeling, instilled by the trauma inflicted by his own father, that a father’s best influence was none at all. At least for a McCullough. In fact, three days before Ward’s final admission into the hospital, the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta burned, killing 119. Later researchers pointed to arson carried out by Ward’s brother Roy. At any rate, the final self-inflicted isolation mirrored, if less profitably, the breaks from family he had forced on himself through his whole life.

My grandfather’s last memory of his father was on a busy sidewalk in Brunswick, Georgia. A young pastor by then, well along on a successful path, he saw his father at a distance, and crossed the street to avoid him. He never knew whether or not his father had seen him, but I have a romantic imagining that he did, and that he must have derived some painful satisfaction from it–Yes, cross the street.

In the final reckoning, I think the notion that we can open doors for our children that will lead them places we cannot follow is a lie, but I don’t doubt the sincerity with which my great-grandfather held it, or the nobility of the mistake. He certainly endured the fruits of it–bounty and rot alike–and I know the life I’ve been able to enjoy stems from it.

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