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The Blog Brothers

Two Black-Irish-American brothers from the mythical city of Albany, New York ponder their 20th century adventures from either side of the Pacific Ocean; Bob in Kyoto, Japan and Mick in Santa Barbara, California.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Men at Arms

Dad kept the Luger up in the attic in a box he never opened, as far as I know, but other than that he would never have a gun in the house. He never hunted, never bought a gun, never allowed us to have guns, not even BB guns, never spoke of the stuff in the box, and left it behind when one late summer afternoon in 1954 as he sat in the family car beside the VFW Post he called us kids over and hugged us hard, then drove away weeping and never came back.

Dad had been the lateborn youngest (and so the family darling) of four kids: Ed, Alice, Jim and Frank. We lost contact with that half of the family when we had to move down into the slums not long after Dad drove away. All three brothers had volunteered for the Army when the war started, Dad when I was three and Mick was just a year old. I remember watching from my sub-tabletop eye level in the kitchen of our tiny apartment as Mom packed rationed wartime luxuries like chocolate and jam into a box to send to Dad in the winter in Belgium, whatever that was. I recall it so well because I was tragically upset that all those treasures were just-- being sent away! I wonder now if Dad ever received them that winter in the Ardennes… Fortunately, all three sons returned home safely, but none of them ever said a word about their experiences.

Now that I'm older than Dad ever got to be, and having served in the military myself, and having read many books about that part of the war Dad fought through, I look back upon that handsome, intelligent young man as a tragic figure, like so many of his fellow WWII veterans. His joys, his ambitions, his essential goodness and sensitivity had all been war-twisted into a chaos of personal confusion and aimless rage that no one then understood or could share but his buddies at the VFW Post he founded and first commanded, then moved his family next door to.

That way he could quickly be with his fellow soldiers, the only ones in their world who knew what they'd all been through, who shared that same distant weariness in the eyes from the relentless horrors they'd beheld as young men, horrors that had scarred their souls and that in time killed so many of them with whiskey or pistols or cars into trees. They were all still in the same life-or-death mode that some managed to bury at least partially in the graveyard of their past, all just trying to survive for any length of time, there in that beery foxhole of camaraderie from whose open doors all those dreamy summer songs wafted in the sweet torture of what might have been... Mona Lisa, You Belong to Me, Wheel of Fortune, How High the Moon...

Also scattered in that attic box were dozens of war photos of Sherman tanks crushing through German villages, blowing out walls of houses and shops amid smoke and piles of rubble; and
stark photos of dead Nazi soldiers twisted frozen in the snows of Hurtgen Forest; there was the pristine black Luger in its black leather holster (we never did know whether it was loaded), an engraved German officer's bayonet with the grease still on it, a big red swastika flag with bold ink signatures all over it, and other things I no longer remember. When our world collapsed after Dad drove away I don't know what happened to all the stuff in the box, except for the Luger, which one day in the remnants of childhood bliss I took outside to use in playing cops and robbers. Likely some flabbergasted neighbor lady communicated her shock to Mom, who gave the Luger to a gun club her cousin belonged to, and the bayonet to my uncle in the country, where I learned years later my cousins wore it out on farm chores like digging up potatoes...
One autumn day in 1950 or so, when I was about 10, Dad and his VFW buddy Pete S. let me go with them when they took Pete's M1 Garand (the kind they'd both carried during the war) and a heavy box of cartridges, drove out into the countryside somewhere, set up some tin cans against a hillside and started shooting. I'd never heard a real high-powered rifle up-close before; each explosion was for me a shock of the war, roaring from the same kind of gun that had killed the Nazi soldiers in the attic... later would come the images of men, women and children lying in heaps all over Europe; blood, smoke, shrapnel and ruins everywhere amid smoldering wastes that had been populous cities, towns and villages-- there was hell in those rifle booms, a hell no soldiers ever spoke of...

None of the other fathers who had come home from the war ever talked about it either, never told how part of their hearts and souls had been left on a bloody field, though all the kids begged them for some tales. Later, while reading books on the Battle of the Bulge, watching documentaries about the European theater, seeing photos of the aftermath of a notorious massacre or watching elderly men who had been there and were now a part of history pause to wipe away tears as they told at last of the long gauntlet of horrors they had passed through, I wondered each time: is that where Dad was? Is that where those photos of the frozen soldiers were taken? Is that Dad in that column there, head down, marching through the Ardennes Forest snows when I was 4 years old? Was that the village in the tank battle photos? Is this where Mom was sending those packages I cried over?

I used to plead with Dad to tell me some war stories and there must have been many, as the look on his face implied when my questions forced his mind back to those times, but all he ever said was that he'd been a radio man (the one the enemy would try to kill first), and I remember the checkered 99th Infantry Division patch on the shoulder of his uniform when he was dressing for a parade. I also recall his once describing a fighter-bomber trying to land a bomb in a cave on the side of a steep cliff somewhere, another time he said he'd been to the Eagle's Nest, and that was all he ever told. In a documentary I saw not long ago, about US soldiers rummaging through Hitler's abandoned mountain bunker I looked for Dad, thought I'd see him any minute, as a young soldier; maybe that was him, but the film was faded, the past gets grainy, hard to see…

Saving Private Ryan depicted only two hours of the heart's deepest darkness those guys had gone through 24 hours a day for months on end, divorced from life, living as targets, friends blasted to bits before their eyes in the death-dealing cold until those who survived came home, emerging from a nightmare in the furthest pit of living hell into all that was sweetness and light, all that was smiling and prosperous as they stepped out of death and into the welcoming arms of a bountiful America, but each of them carried within himself that scouring nightmare that could never be erased, and they had only each other to silently share the unspeakable they had been part of, still smoldering here amid the clear air and sunshine of what once would have been natural ambition in young men like these, but now among hometown streets with flowers edging the trim lawns of tidy houses, and on through the falling leaves of autumn and beyond, they were the only ones who knew the other side of this warm reality, so they clung together and never said a word about whence they had come, what they had seen, what they had done; they drank together and held together and never said a word: not to their families, not to friends or associates, not even to each other, about the dark visions they carried inside-- never, there amid all this growing happiness they had offered their lives to defend but could not fully share in or enjoy, heroes that they were, being always among the faces they had seen blown to fragments in an instant, there in the smiling faces of their children who kept asking, Did you kill anybody in the war, Dad?

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Anonymous jeremayakovka said...

It's tough speculating on a father's demons to try to fashion what you need to slay your own dragons. Most of us are spiritual orphans.

The other day I met an old man with a noticeable German accent. He lives here in CA. Trying to figure him out I asked him if he were from .... Austria? "Germany," he said. He came here after the war. During its last year, he said, he'd been drafted into the Wehrmacht and fought the Russians in a losing cause. Spent some time as a POW. Then somehow made it to America.

I'm inclined to give him benefit of the doubt, because I figure someone with big and terrible things to hide wouldn't have been so candid.

To his credit, he was carrying in his hand a copy of War Crimes by anti-Clinton hawk Buzz Patterson.

10:02 PM  
Blogger joared said...

I recall a young man who returned from the Pacific. All who had known him before he went to war said he was completely changed and not for the better. I was told he only spoke once about his Pacific Theater war experiences -- briefly to his Dad with references to caves, Japanese, a flame thrower.

I'm convinced so many of the WWII veterans spent the rest of their lives coping with post-traumantic stress syndrome for which they received no intervention. Guess the VFW Post was as close as they came.

Not easy coping without a Dad, especially in a day when attitudes toward a woman with children whose husband suddenly leaves could be very difficult, as I learned, too. In this latter instance, a WWI vet who'd been in Europe.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Steve Sherlock said...

Thanks for sharing this. My father never said much except for "the real heroes never came home". When the book "Flag of Our Fathers" came out he opened up a little bit. When the movie came out, he opened up a little more. Now I am sitting with him to record his life story and I am learning a whole lot. We are just getting into the WWII period where he went straight from high school to the 4th Marine Division and then ultimately to Iwo Jima.

You can listen to Jerry's Story here -> http://jerrysherlockstory.blogspot.com/

3:57 PM  
Blogger Bob Brady said...

Thank you, Joared and Steve,for your understanding, and for your thanks. It was painful to write, and only scratch the surface, the merest surface, of what they went through - in the flesh - and then brought home.
Praise be to them for their sacrifice, and courage be to us, in bearing the aftermath -- may it be worthily borne.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Mick Brady said...

How well I remember that Luger myself and all the photos he brought back with him.

Learning many years later that he drank himself to death in a rundown hotel out west ultimately made him a tragic figure in my eyes, and helped erase the anger that I had kept inside all those years at his leaving.

I could finally see that he was a great man and did his best - for his country, and for us. It must have been a heavy, heavy burden.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Nevin said...

One of your best posts, Bob. I'll think about this one for a long, long, time.

9:30 PM  

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