April 24, 2008

But for the Grace of an Old, Army Jeep


A few Sundays ago I had the opportunity to take our new car out for a spin. As I accelerated down one of the main highways just outside of town, I felt good, happy actually, and I hadn’t felt that way in a while. With a cup of steamy 7-11 Coffee in my hand and some jazz playing on the car stereo, I hastened past a crude, cardboard sign which simply read “Car Show.” An arrow drawn in magic marker led the way.

I thought to myself that this would be a good place to take the kids later on in the morning. My wife wasn’t feeling well and I felt that the little ones shouldn't hang around the house and waste the day. Then, I caught a peek at some of the cars pulling in the lot where the event was to take place.

Funky notes from the tune “Sponge” by Randy Brecker got my foot tapping and I sped on past the ancient, re-born vehicles filing into the car show’s venue which was a church parking lot. My new Malibu ran smoothly, quiet, and I savored my artificial world crafted by General Motors and my imagination. Everything beyond the windshield was a movie. Pedestrians and automobiles alike were mere extras to be seen and not interacted with. I pressed the accelerator and trusted that the police were not on the alert for speeders so early in the morning.

An older jalopy which caught my eye in the queue of car show vehicles stayed with me in my mind. More of a horse carriage with a motor than a family car, I mused that the scenery surrounding such a machine in the year it was likely manufactured was starkly different than in today’s world. My dad was an eighteen year old kid fighting in Italy when this thing originally cruised around the highways. Detroit in early 1940’s had shut down auto production to produce tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles for the war effort. My guess at the actual age of the car was based on instinct and a wish that I could peek backward in time to that era; maybe visiting my father before I was "born".

To see my dad in person wearing his uniform as he was about to be shipped off to North Africa in August of 1943 would have been spectacular, to say the least. There’s a photo of my youthful father clad in his army trousers and button down shirt, as he posed on the rooftop of his Brooklyn home before being shipped overseas. His face hinted at an innocent enthusiasm as he was only vaguely aware of the horror and death he’d witness in the fighting due east. I often wondered what it would have been like if I encountered him before his departure. These fantasies occurred to me often over the years as I gazed into his confident eyes portrayed in that image. Would I be able to interact with him? Would he understand that he’d survive this conflict and marry a beautiful woman have six children and stay married for fifty two years? Would it be necessary to warn him to keep his head down and to ignore the agony of multiple bullet wounds?

My daydream almost got the best of me and I slowed down to keep pace with traffic. I ejected the CD and tuned in to the local talk radio station. “Religion on the Line,” a local radio program, has been on the air for ages and I listened in out of a sense of nostalgia for the days when going to church was a big event in my family. I am more spiritual now than religious. My mind harkens to God and then my cynicism foils the attempts organized religion makes to subdue me. Though I am a sinner, I lead a moral existence and teach my children to be good people. The show’s hosts, a rabbi and a deacon, both spoke of the Pope’s visit to New York City. It’s hard to fend off my Catholic guilt and not sit up straight and think pure thoughts when the pope is mentioned.

Again, my mind turned to that antique car and my dad. Indoctrinated by Dominican nuns in Catholic school, my father’s loyalty to the Franciscans was fostered when a young priest from that order administered Last Rites to him on the battlefield after he was severely wounded. Coincidently, the priest was once assigned to a church my father attended in Manhattan when he was a boy.

After a fierce battle in the Italian town of Velletri, this priest came to my dad’s side shortly following a pair of POWs from the German Wehrmacht who almost tossed my unconscious father into a mass, temporary grave. They thought he was dead; and, when these two soldiers (older men who were conscripts from Poland) lifted him on a stretcher they fashioned from a door, my dad awoke, frightening them, and they dropped the door and left him where they found him. He’d have been buried moments later by the bulldozer covering the trench with mountains of soil had they actually dumped his body into the pit.

It was fluke, perhaps divine intervention, that two men from the same town, a soldier and a priest, met during wartime thousands of miles away in Europe. Yet the young cleric’s compassion inspired my dad, made him hold on, and ultimately led him home.

Later in the day, I took my son to that car show. My wife was still ailing and my daughter felt a bit under the weather too. Inside, there were some vintage military vehicles; some Willys Jeeps and an old Army truck from World War II.

Did Grandpa ride in one of these when he was in the army?” my son asked.

Yeah, he did, actually.” I answered.

In fact, the only time he time did get a lift in a jeep was when he was heading home. After two months in an army field hospital in Rome, he was ordered back to the states for discharge from the service. His wounds were extensive and he couldn’t handle a rifle. The young soldier argued that he wanted to stay and fight along side his buddies; but, he was no longer fit for duty. All of his friends were eventually killed in action among the hedge rows in France; and, my dad weeps for them to this day.

He is more than sixty years older than when he fought in battle and the pain of war persists. His hearing is deteriorating due to a German bullet which spliced his left ear canal, a fragment of that round remains in the base of his skull today, his arm and hand became arthritic from a another bullet wound, and horrific memories haunt his dreams and waking moments.

Using my camera phone, I snapped a photo of my nine year old son who wore the slight grin of a child who was proud of a secret; that his grandpa rode in an army Jeep just like the one he was posing in front of. For a kid, that's awesome.

In the back of the lot were the older autos, including the one I noticed earlier which caused me to fall into this semi-Somnambulistic state. Dark in color, very long with side running boards, this model was actually built in the 1930s. Still, I was accurate in guessing its age. Nevertheless, I was grateful that the mere sight of this restored motor vehicle got me reminiscing. There but for the grace of God, and a kindly parish priest turned Army chaplain, that I was able to enjoy this event with my son. My father could have been buried alive and this fine day with me strolling in the sunlight with my boy at my side never would have happened.

My entire life was owed to a gentle priest who reached down for a soldier’s weakened, bloodied hand and coaxed him to find God and survive.

After an afternoon of reflection, I no longer felt the urge to sneak back in time to caution my soldier-father about the impending danger of battle anymore. Things turned out well in spite of the war and his close brush with death. That young Franciscan priest became his lifelong inspiration, influencing many decisions which brought him to this point in his life where he frequently calls and asks "When am I going to see my grandchildren?"

On that glorious Sunday I stepped closer to God in the parking lot of a Roman Catholic Church, with my young boy holding my hand, thinking about my dad’s first ride in the back of a jeep, and about how gently the Lord guides our lives.

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31 comments:

Poetikat said...

Mike, Such a touching and remarkable piece! I was moved by so many elements of this. The crossover between your dad's history and your own life, the connection between the Franciscan and your father, your concern and thoughtfulness about your wife and kids and even your expression about "Catholic Guilt". As you may (or may not) be aware-I make no bones about telling people-I am a practicing Catholic. I have had my share of grappling with the guilt of which you speak. As well, my father was involved in the WWII, though closer to the end of it. He was in the British Army for 11 years. There is one photo of him that I can visualize. He's in his uniform, skinny legs showing beneath his army issue shorts and sporting a cap on his head. He is only 19. He is grinning his big Irish grin and his eyes are laughing.
Your post has made me look at his past in an entirely different manner. As a daughter, I have not really identified with his experience, though I have heard many tales. He never saw battle.
Because of your writing, now I too can reflect on the person he must have been and how I would have related to him. You know, you may be onto a very good idea for a novel. Obviously there would need to be a suspension of disbelief factor, but I think most people could do that. The concept of meeting someone in your immediate family as they were in a period of history is a brilliant one. I cannot think of another example of this, can you?

Sorry for monopolizing this space. I've been on antihistamine drugs for my penicillin reaction and when I'm awake it makes me run off at the mouth(more than usual).

Anyway, thanks greatly for such an evocative post.

Kat

P.S. I do believe, with this being held in an R.C. parking lot, that Divine Intervention was at work.

Swubird said...

Mike:

A heartwarming, well-written story. It's amazing how some things we see in everyday life, which, in and of themselves, are no more than daily implements of our lives in the twenty-first century. But sometimes when you, or me, or someone else sees them, we are instantly transported back to another era. And for just a few moments out of our busy lives, we commune with our fathers, or grandfathers, or loved ones - as they appear in our memories. The experience sort of recharges our batteries, and, like those vintage cars, we feel renewed!

Wonderful story.

Have a very nice day.

Kathy said...

Mike -- Yet another story that gives me the chills. There is no other writer who does that for me. I'm always transported to another time and place with you through your words. I'm in awe of the picture you painted of your father's experiences. Thank you for taking me on that journey. A fine, fine piece.

The Supplicant said...

Hi Mike
Never...ever...sleep on the open ground. Find a shell hole. Chances are a shell won't hit the exact same spot twice. Thats the advice my father-in-law told me before he passed away two years ago. He was a veteran of world war 2 having joined in 1940 and spending the whole war battling in France and Germany. On top of that he didn't have a scratch the whole time.
I loved how you wove this piece from the present to the past and back again. Very skillfully done my friend. It's a heart warming and poignant story that is clearly your forte. Judging from the comments here...you have once again conveyed a message of hope woven in a touching story of survival and personal growth. Loved it.
~JD

Mike French said...

Well told M2 - I like the normal day that you wrap around the story of your Dad. Made me think of all the "normal" people living their normal lives out there going to work - doing the shopping - cleaning the car - whilst inside their minds are wonders, stories, tradegy ,death and hope.

M1

Bob Johnson said...

Lovely piece of work Mike, you always tell such great stories. My Dad was a liberator, went through on a motor bike to all the little towns to give the people notice they were again free, Being one of the first people through he was shot at frequently by snipers in trees, doen't talk much of the war, glad to have him here still.

I too think about what would or should I say what wouldn't have been if not for the grace of God, probably having his angels around my Dad as he was leading the way to announce the peoples freedom.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

Hi! A wonderful and heart warming story incorporating three generations from the other side of the world.

We may be from different parts of the world but one thing that we do have in common is that we've had family fight for our freedom.

On the 25 April us Aussies celebrate ANZAC day to commemorate the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli during the First World War.

If it wasn't for them the likes of me wouldn't be around to enjoy what we have today.

I thank them and the countless millions that served and died in all the great wars, including current day wars for our freedom.

That thanks also goes to your father and to you for telling this great story.

Please God, for the many that are now fighting overseas, may they come home soon, safe and well.

Take Care,
Peter
PS The deleted comment was mine - I made a blue.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Poetikat,
"As a daughter, I have not really identified with his experience, though I have heard many tales."

It took me a while to identify with my dad's experience because he never cooperated until later years. Your dad's service is admirable, and thanks to men like him, we have a safer world. That is why I write these stories about my dad, so none of us forget the sacrifices of veterans and to learn about myself through my father. Thanks Poetikat for sharing your personal stiry about your father. Your love for him is apparent. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Swubird,
I could not have said it beter myself. You stated elegantly what I was trying to sya and it took me about 1,100 words to do it. You did it in about thirty. Thanks for the eloquent comment. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kathy,
I always appreciate your discussion of your feeling swith regards to my work. You make my head swell! I am glad you enjoyed this one. Thank you. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,
Your father in law's advice no doubt kept him alive, and thankfully so. I am sorry to hear of his death, and we are losing WWII veterans at an alarming rate. I do this, write stories of my father's experiences, to chronicle his story and to keep a record of his contribution, no matter how insignificant he thinks it was. Thanks JD.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Mike (M1)

"Made me think of all the "normal" people living their normal lives out there going to work - doing the shopping - cleaning the car - whilst inside their minds are wonders, stories, tradegy ,death and hope." Well said, Mike. And it is up to us writers to make those stories, the ones running through people's heads, come to life in the stories we make up. I am glad you liked the story, mate. Thank you. -Mike (M2).

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Bob,
"My Dad was a liberator, went through on a motor bike to all the little towns to give the people notice they were again free, Being one of the first people through he was shot at frequently by snipers in trees, doen't talk much of the war, glad to have him here still. I'd love to hear you father's story. It was suggested to me a long while agao to record my father's expereinces so it can be a part of our family's history. It's taking me a while because his memories are too painful to recount at great length. But, he has acknowledged a need to re-connect with his past and come to terms with what happened to him. I applaud your father's service to his nation. Like I said, you should sit down with him, grab a video recorder...and ask a lot of questions, my freind. Thank you. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Peter,
"On the 25 April us Aussies celebrate ANZAC day to commemorate the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli during the First World War."

It is great to learn about another countrie's history from someone who knows it first hand. I saw the movie "Gallipoli" with Mel gibson years ago, and it was brutal what those poor soldiers endured. I also appreciate your sentiment about soldiers overseas involved in battle today. I too share that thought, and I look forward to our men and women coming home soon. Thank you Peter. -Mike.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Mike, a great post full of nostalgia, poignancy and love for your father. Has he read this?


My FIL can't speak of his WWII experiences either. He was on the boat that carried the photographer who snapped the pic of that famous flag raising, and the days that preceded that were the worst he's ever lived through.

Hugs, JJ

1st Lady said...

I have a very old Jeep pedal car in my garage. I bought it at a yard sale and have always been meaning to fix it up. You've just made me look up an old photo I have here on my computer of my grandad and great uncle in their WWII army uniforms, and I'm smiling remembering them...

Max said...

Hello Mike,

I nearly lack the words to describe this text: it is simply sublime!

I loved reading it and as I did I could see all the images in front of me.
Your dad's story is incredible and if you don't mind I would like to say that God brought you dad home so that he could call you and ask "when am I seeing my grandchildren" :).

I know what you mean about being more spiritual than religious and I wished more people were like that. The most important thing is that you believe in God.
I am not Catholic, nor Christian for all that matter (although my parents are Roman Catholics), but I respect the pope (what an interesting individual).

I hope your wife and daughter are feeling better!

Have a great week!

Cheers

angesbiz said...

Mike, your words moved me as always. I felt like I was there with you... riding in your car and at one stage, I forgot where I was! Beautiful piece and wonderful memories.

Spirit said...

*poke* Hey you, sorry I haven't been around for awhile, had a lot of net problems. Just wanted to let you know that you aren't forgotten and hoping all is well with you, your family, and friends. Peace, peace!

Ceris said...

Hey Mr Grudge, I stumbled across your blog and I'm glad I did, I enjoyed this post very much, also the comments. Coincidentally (or not, given the current world climate) I have been much moved recently by my own research into my grandfather's brother.Aged just 18,(or possibly 17, and therefore underage, I've yet to confirm his exact date of birth)he went missing in action in the trenches towards the end of WW1. His family never learned the details of how or where he died, or that he was remembered on a Memorial to the Missing at a Belgian war cemetery - to them he was just gone, wiped out except in their hearts. Thanks to the Web I've since obtained his unit's war diaries and contemporary newspaper reports from the field, enough to reconstruct his last days and to know that "missing in action" in his case meant blown to pieces.
My point is, irrational as it may seem I feel that if I tell his story I will somehow bring comfort to the souls of those he left behind (all since dead) and to my father, who never met him but who was aware of his ghost and how it haunted my grandfather to his grave.
Ripples in the continuum of life - like you, I'm not religious, but moved by and for the sake of some undefinable spirit that runs through all humanity.
Anyway, that's an ongoing project and will take a while to complete. Meanwhile I would be honoured if you visited www.earthsedge.blogspot.com, where I have posted some of my recent work. (Excuse the push, I don't get many visitors!)
Ceris

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JJ Loch,
"My FIL can't speak of his WWII experiences either. He was on the boat that carried the photographer who snapped the pic of that famous flag raising, and the days that preceded that were the worst he's ever lived through."

Your father in law's story must be facinating...as is al of those who fought. He witnessed such an historical event, it may be worth while to ask him about it...and then to write his history. It was extremely tough, and very painful to get my dad to talk about his experiences. All told, it took me twenty years of pestering him. Ultimately, he did so, and on his own terms. In answer to your question, he has not read anything I've written about him. There's are several posts on this blog about his war expereinces. I'm sorry he will not look at them. Thanks for the answer, JJ. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi 1st Lady,

"You've just made me look up an old photo I have here on my computer of my grandad and great uncle in their WWII army uniforms, and I'm smiling remembering them..."

I am only happy to have helped you remember your grandfather and your great uncle. What happened to them during the war? Are they still with us? Would you be willing to record their story for history? Thak you so much for reading, 1st lady. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Max,

"Your dad's story is incredible and if you don't mind I would like to say that God brought you dad home so that he could call you and ask "when am I seeing my grandchildren" :)."

Thank you so much for the kind words about my writing. As far as your reasoning for why God brought him home...so simple isn't it? I guess the answer is in front of all of our faces as to why we are here: so that we may love each other and support and nuture one another.

"When am I going to see my grandchildren?"
Any time you want, Dad. Any time indeed.

Thank you Max.

-Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Ange,
Gos to see you back. Thank you very much for your kind words about my writing. I appreciate it. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Spirit!

It's been a long while...and i am glasd to see you back. Hope all is well, and i just checked out your blog. Be well. -Mike.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hello Ceris,
How wonderful to meet you. I just cma e back from your blog and your poetry is powerful, emotional, and vivid. I will go back when i have a bit more time and give your work the reading it deserves. As for your comment here:

"My point is, irrational as it may seem I feel that if I tell his story I will somehow bring comfort to the souls of those he left behind (all since dead) and to my father, who never met him but who was aware of his ghost and how it haunted my grandfather to his grave."

Your desire to tell the story of your great uncle is not irrational, but noble. It is the writer who becomes the historian, and who chronicles the details of a person's life, be him or her a family member or freind, or person of note. I would imagine that the details of his death would come as comfort to his family indeed, no matter how belated, because time does heal all wounds...and who knows? You may have healed his soul.

I am always on the lookout for writers and their blogs because I am eager to learn more about this craft of writing. I am a bit slow to post lately due to a heavy workload; but when I do post, I try to come up with something folks will want to read. Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to reading much more of your writing, and please stop by again. -Mike.

drippingmind said...

This article is truly remarkable. I practically grew up with much influence by the Franciscans, being gone to catholic schools administered by the order. It is one thing that I can personally relate to some aspect of this story, but the approach, and the wisdom that might have touch your heart to write this simply radiates and felt as one goes on to read this. It's a blessing in its own way Mike. :-)

Leofina Jane

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Dripping Mind,
I appreciate you stopping by and I am glad you can relate to this story. -Mike.

Spirit said...

Hey again (see, I really am back online this time. I showed up twice in a row *winks*), just wanted to let you know that I've tagged you for the 'Random Things' meme if you'd like to do it. Purely optional. :)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Spirit,
For you...I'd be happy to do a meme. Thanks. I'll get to by next week some time. I have a few items to post here on on the other blog I am invloved with. Thanks again, and it's great to see you back. -Mike.