Sunday, November 12, 2006

Old Soldiers Never Die

I bought a poppy from an old soldier this week outside my office.

I walked by him initially, as I save a single each day for a homeless woman who hangs out around the stock exchange.

Each time I see her, I give a dollar bill and she responds with an automatic "God bless ya." I figured I've been blessed enough times I could probably run for pope. Do I have to give money to everybody?

I was about to walk into my building when I began to feel guilty about not buying a poppy. My father is a World War II veteran, recovering from a stroke, and I can't cough up another dollar to help out the cause?

I turned around and fished out my wallet.

The man was just giving a poppy to another guy when I got there. I checked his cap and, yes, he was a Second World War veteran, too.

"My dad's a vet," I said, as I pushed the folded dollar into the can.

"Is he still around?" He asked the obvious question.

"Yeah, he's in a nursing home now."

"My wife is,too," the man said. "But you're young yet."

"Young?" I laughed. "I'm going to be 50 next year."

"You're halfway there," he said. "You've got 50 more to go."

We both laughed and I went to work. The "poppy" is actually made of paper and according to the tag on the stem, it was distributed by the Jewish War Veterans of the USA.

Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree...

I grew up on World War stories, both from my father, the movies, and TV. When we were kids, we loved going to see "army pictures" as we called them, watched Combat on TV, and played army all the time, fighting the Nazis over and over.

My father always used to criticize the war movies, from the battle scenes right down to the quality of the actors' salutes. (He maintained most of them couldn't give a decent salute.) He also got angry when he saw actors like John Wayne and Frank Sinatra portraying soldiers.

"Frank Sinatra did all his fighting in the movies," he'd say in disgust.

I found it hard to believe that the latest World War II movie, Flags of Our Fathers, failed at the box office in spite of rave reviews. An article in the New York Times said World War II apparently isn't real to movie-goers today, that the stories from that time have lost their meaning.

I guess I shouldn't be suprised, but I feel like the sacrifices my father's generation made are being washed away.

My dad had a habit of repeating himself a lot, but with the army stories, I didn't mind. I could hear them again and again, and now, sitting here, I wish I had recorded them so we'd have them for all time.

His stories became mine. I re-told them throughout high school and even today I pick out one of the good ones and repeat it for my friends. You would almost think I was the one who fought in the war.

I used to ride down to the post office at Grand Army Plaza at night so he could mail order forms to his company and somewhere along the way, he'd start telling me one of his war stories. His unit was called "The Timberwolves" and they lived by the motto "Nothing in Hell Can Stop the Timberwolves."

He'd talk about basic training out in the desert, where he'd throw a short piece of rope into someone's tent and shout "snake!" And then he'd laugh as he described his victim running across the sands with his tent draped over his head.

My father's pratical jokes always went too far and he told me how he once picked up a dead rattlesnake and approached a Southern soldier he knew had a deathly fear of reptiles.

The Southerner was not amused as he picked up his rifle and told my father that if he took one more step he would be a dead man. My father decided to bother someone else.

There was the time they were crossing an irrigation ditch on night maneuvers and one of the soldiers fell off the footbridge and into the rushing water. The soldier let out of this terrible wail and one of the corporals came running up shouting, "that was the scream of death if ever I heard it!"

Perhaps, but the fallen soldier was still holding on to the bridge and had not been swept away to his demise.

He'd talk about the men he served with, "Tiger" Ryan, Benny Tornetta, and a guy he would just call the Big Swede. There was the crazy major who walk fearlessly through an artillery attack, while his soldiers were face down on the ground, and yet this very same man was terrified of snipers.

"I came up to him one time," my father said, "and he was in a foxhole. I asked him what he was doing down there, and he said, 'snipers got me pinned.' "

It's strange how this man had no fear of a massive artillery shell, but was terrified by the thought of a little piece of lead.

Of course, all the soldiers hated snipers, who would stay behind in a village, kill a few men to slow the troops down and then come out with their hands up to surrender.

One of my father's buddies was able to pick off a sniper and as the man shrieked in agony, the soldier declared, "scream, you bastard, it's music to my ears!"

My father never bragged about how many Germans he killed or how brave he was in combat. Quite the opposite, he readily confessed how he was terrified, especially during artillery attacks, when shells were screaming through the sky and blowing up around him.

He wasn't much for medals either, saying he was most proud of his intact ass.

Battle Zone

My father was once trudging through a freezing rain storm one night in Holland and looked down to see the corpse of German soldier, its face distorted by a sheet of ice. My father figured he most have set a broad jump record leaping away from the body.

There was a night time battle, which he summed by saying, "man, the shit was flying." And that said it all.

There was the night he and some of his buddies were out on maneuvers and they saw a German soldier coming. The soldier, thinking they were his buddies, asked what time it was. One of the Americans who could speak German responded and the soldier walked into the group of my dad's buddies.

"Yeah," my father would say, changing the pronoun. "They cut this throat."

I found later through my uncle that my father had come back from the war in pretty bad shape. He had two or three friends, also named Jim, who were killed in the same day. One of the men ran a hunting lodge somewhere out west and the three men had talked about going on a trip out there after the war.

I heard one story years ago, where my father was supposedly stuck in a foxhole for one long night with one of his comrades. He talked to the man all night and later found out the soldier was dead and he had been talking to a corpse.

I'm told that after the war he struggled to find a place in the working world. I'm sure the war scarred my father, perhaps accounted for his rages, his insensitivity, his downright meanness. It's hard to say and much too late to correct.

I went out to the nursing home to see my dad today. It was raining pretty hard and the boardwalk was almost empty. We played cards for a while and he said we should go upstairs so I could visit with Mom. I had to gently remind him that Mom was no longer with us.

I mentioned Veteran's Day and he didn't seem interested. I know he always resented guys who saw no action during the war but bragged about being soldiers.

He said there were soldiers stationed London who just about cried when peace was declared. They were nowhere near the action, they worked in offices and they had a whole city full of women whose men were off to war. War wasn't hell for these guys.

I wheeled my father around the floor and he pointed to one man in a wheelchair, saying, "I know that guy." I thought he might have been imaginging things again, but the other man turned and said, "hi, Jim."

It turns out they share the same floor and eat at the same table. This man, also named Jim, is 91 years old, 6 years older than my dad. I asked him how he was doing.

"We're waiting to die," he said simply. "We have no future."

I started to say something, give him some kind of stupid pep talk, but I shut up. Who am I to tell this man how he should feel? He's the one going through this experience, not me.

I took my dad back up to his floor so he could have supper, and then headed out. It was too dark to walk on the boardwalk, so I walked down Surf Avenue in a light rain. I think of how my father marched through much more severe weather, in much more dangerous areas, and I think how that's all being forgotten now.

So I'm glad I went back and bought that poppy. I did it for my father, for "Tiger" Ryan, the Big Swede the crazy major, and all the other soldiers who gave up so much so many years ago.

I don't know if I'm doing it right, but I'm going to salute you guys anyway. As my homeless friend would say, "God bless ya."


Calamity Jen said...

I abhor the very thought of war (it's an absurd phenomenon, when you really think about it) and I usually avoid wearing a poppy because it makes me feel uncomfortable. I remember mistakenly thinking that by not wearing a poppy I was showing my alliance to my dad's pacifist ways, as he was a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War. Then I realized that he faithfully wears a poppy every November. I finally had to come to terms with the fact that, sometimes, war may be justified. Present conflicts excluded, of course.

Rob K said...

Yes, Jen, some wars are necessary, but those conflicts are so rare. And you'll always find some soulless SOB making a buck off it. (Halliburton, anyone?)

I'll add your dad's name to the list of people I salute. Refusing to fight in that fiasco was truly an heroic act.

Take care,