Seventy-five years ago, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Wesley Notgrass was a 29-year-old soldier in the medical corps from Columbia, Tenn.
"They woke granddaddy up at midnight on June 6," John Notgrass, Wesley's grandson, explains. "They put him on a ship and sent him across the English Channel."
Wesley Notgrass died in 2007 at age 92. But for the past decade and a half, John has tried to connect with his grandfather's war stories by telling them in first-person — while dressed in his grandfather's uniform.
Some of these stories are about D-Day. Wesley wasn't one of the Allied soldiers attacking Normandy on June 6, 1944, but he was sent there the day after, attending to soldiers who were wounded. Soon after, a storm cut off access to rations, so they lived for a few days on captured German food: sauerkraut, pickled pigs feet and green coffee.
"He said it was good when they got some K-rations and started having some good American food after that," John says, laughing.
As a child, John would hear Wesley's stories of his time in World War II — sometimes repetitively, as he aged. He showed John souvenirs from the war: medals, German guns and a German helmet surrendered to American troops.
"It didn't really sink in until I was in my late teens and early 20s, and I personally started studying more about World War II, and realized that he had been involved in these things I read about in books," John says.
Then John discovered that his grandfather's old wool uniform, given out at the end of the war, fit him.
Snugly, because his grandfather was a bit shorter.
But still, he feels more connected to Wesley when he wears it, he says.
"There are no zippers. It's all buttons and snaps. So there's a process," John says. "I have a picture of him getting dressed in his uniform when he was stationed in England, and just thinking about that connection of going through the same process that he did — it's a special feeling."
That feeling is something he aims to get his audiences to understand, too.
"In history books, it's easy to focus on the big political leaders and the armies moving and the big national international events, but all of those things only happened because individual people were doing the fighting and dying," John says.
"People are still people. They had the same emotions, the same joys, the same desires, the same fears. So whatever the time period is, I think we can learn a lot of lessons that still apply to our lives today."
John Notgrass performed his grandfather's stories earlier this week in Columbia and has performances Thursday in Cookeville and Gainesboro.