In October 1974, as he lay on his death bed at the end of a battle with cancer and reflected on his past, Clyde S. Shield (pictured above) wrote the following heartfelt letter to his 3-week-old grandson and offered some poignant advice for the road ahead. 30 years previous, Clyde had played a significant role in World War II, having first taken to the air immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor in a valiant attempt to fight off the Japanese, and then, some time later, as lead test pilot during the Manhattan Project—a project during which the atomic bombs that ultimately devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ended the war, were developed. His military career was a particularly illustrious one.
His proud grandson said of the letter in 2011:
“It has meant different things to me at different times in my life […] Anytime I am struggling, in tough times or having to make a big decision, it is something I always come back to.”
Full transcript follows; images of the remaining pages are here.
7 October, 1974
I doubt this letter will mean too much to you now – you can’t even focus your eyes, yet, but maybe, years hence, it may mean something to you. So, I hope your father and mother will keep this for you until it does mean a little more to you.
You may or may not get to know me – your Grandfather – that is in someone else’s hands. But just in case you do not – I’d like to leave a few ideas with you. Ideas, I may say, that I tried to germinate in your father’s mind with varying degrees of success.
To begin with you are very welcome to this sad, tattered and abused old world. We really haven’t done a very good job of preserving it for you. On the contrary we have plundered it of its wealth of minerals and oils, polluted its streams and even the very air we depend on for the very breath of our lives – and we’ve done this with our eyes wide open and with the knowledge that we were doing it! How we explain this, I really don’t know except to say that I, for one, am sorry for it.
We have not learned, even, to live with our fellow men. Instead we have perfected more means to annihilate him – to wipe him (and ourselves) from the face of the Earth.
We produce record crops of grains and other foodstuffs, but still much of the world goes to bed on empty stomachs and thousands starve to death every day.
It’s a strange and confusing world we leave to you. I only hope you can do a better job with it than we have done.
But, in spite of what I’ve said, there is much, in life to enjoy – to relish. There is also much that can be done to make life worth while and living worth the “candle.” There is a rich heritage of literature and music that awaits your investigation – it’s there for the taking – in the libraries of the country and in the archives of the museums. There is poetry and prose – enough to fill all the hours you can spare to listen to them and more knowledge, on every conceivable subject, than you can assimilate in a lifetime. It’s all there just waiting for you to ask for it or to seek it out. Don’t overlook it or pass it up for less important or less meaningful pastimes.
Most important of all is ability to savor life, to taste of it in as many variances as you can – while you can. Life never looks so short as when you look back on it. Unfortunately you cannot do this until it has passed you by. So, as you go through life, don’t overlook the “Lily in the Field,” the newborn puppy, the fledgling bird – for they are as much (or more) of life as the tall buildings, the shiny automobiles and the possessions we tend to place so much importance upon. If you can do just this much – life will be more meaningful for you.
When your Dad was born I was busy playing soldier, World War II was history – but recent history – and in which I had a small part. But then I lacked both the knowledge and the wisdom that comes from experience. Now, at 56, I think of what I might have done – and didn’t. But all of us are blessed with “20/20” hindsight.
If I could package (with ribbon) those gifts that I would most like to give you, I would. But how do you package integrity, how do you wrap honesty, what kind of paper for a sense of humor, what ribbon for inquisitiveness?
But, since there is no way I can give you any of those things, I can in this year of your birth, wish that you will find some wisdom and some guidance from these words, and, perhaps my wish for a bright new life for you will, eventually, come to reality. At least I hope so – with all my heart.