September 12, 2007

The Biggest Event: Part I

My dad never spoke about the war. Like most soldiers who saw combat he was tight lipped about his experiences under fire. We knew he was wounded as he had only a few teeth in his mouth and had limited mobility in his right arm. But he kept his pain and discomfort quiet for so long, his injuries almost became rumors.
It was especially uncomfortable for my father during the holidays. My uncles would arrive at our home and inevitably bring up their own experiences in World War II which consisted of peace time occupation duties in Europe. The way they acted though, talking as they did about those “damn Nazis”, you’d think they won the war themselves. As dad was quick to point out when he was especially frustrated with them “They never saw a shot fired in anger in their lives.”
When I said dad never spoke about the war, I meant he didn’t talk about combat. He often read entire books about the WWII and watched countless documentaries. My mother once said that maybe he was looking for old friends in those grainy, black and white reels. Perhaps instead he was trying to make sense of it all. One particular Sunday night in my youth stands out in my mind like a vignette because it was the closest he ever came to revealing what happened to him when he was wounded. I know it was a Sunday because we just finished watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” and the telltale fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland in California were cut short when dad ordered me to change the channel and put on “The World at War” on Channel Thirteen.
Mom hated when he watched this with us kids around. Dead bodies were shown everywhere. Horrifying scenes of death camps, bombings, and soldiers running into battle flickered in front of our young eyes with the full knowledge that our dad had seen much of that. I often marveled at what a giant my father was, and how brave he must have been to scamper across the battlefield with his rifle in his hand and dodge explosions and machine gun fire. Most impressive was that he made it out—with a bullet fragment still lodged in the base of his skull—and was still able to work two jobs and throw a ball to us in the backyard.
That particular Sunday night, my brothers and sisters and I stared at the TV screen, disappointed that we weren’t allowed to watch “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” which followed Disney, and instead had to watch another war documentary. And then, something amazing happened. My father was silent, staring intently at the screen. I remember this episode showing Adolf Hitler speaking in Rome from a balcony in pre-war Italy. There was a throng of people saluting obediently below as he spewed his vile hate speech.
“Do you see that building there?” said dad as he jabbed his finger at the screen. We all flinched as we were startled by his action. “Right there", he continued “that was a university before the war.” None of us said anything, including Mom as she looked up from her crocheting.
“And there was a market, and that building was an elementary school.” Dad watched the screen, his mouth agape, as if he spotted something magnificent.
“How do you know all of this, dad?” my older brother asked.
“Because they made the grammar a school a hospital during the war.” He said as he looked around the room at all of us. “That’s where they took me after I was wounded”.
After he was wounded he said; so much information, from one tiny memory shown on a little RCA television.
I don’t remember if any of us said anything after that. In my young mind my father, the soldier, had come to life. Before that, I fantasized about him being just like John Wayne or Lee Marvin in all of those war movies running around with a sub-machine gun, cigar clenched between his teeth, and tossing grenades at the “Krauts" as that pejorative was used in those films. In a single utterance, dad become a vulnerable human; someone who experienced pain.

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