May 30, 2016
My Pap Pap hesitated when talking about the worst aspects of the war. No matter how much I asked, he evaded. I knew he served in the US Army during World War II, so I chose my words with care when asking about his deployment. However, as the father of fifteen children and grandfather to thirty-five, my grandfather had mastered the art of conversational deflection.
He’d answer a question with, “I thought of your grandmother the whole time I was overseas. She’s such a beauty. Here, look at this photograph. Doesn’t she look like a gypsy?”
I’d try to steer the conversation back to history. “Did you storm the beach at Normandy?”
He’d respond with, “She came with me to Texas where I had Basic Training. We eloped. Boy, was her mom mad! That’s why we have two wedding anniversaries. See, we had to get married in the church, too. Otherwise, there’d be no living with your sweet old Great Grandma. She’s a lot tougher than she looks.”
“Yeah, she is,” I agreed, thinking of my feisty little Great Grandma. She could command a room even when confined to her bed.
Then, at times, he’d share funny recollections that I never quite knew were true or embellishments.
“We were in Italy, see, and hungry.” He jabbed me with his boney elbow. “Boys are always hungry, kiddo. Good you should know that. Well, a few of us got separated from our unit and were scrounging for food. We saw these dark-haired beauties wearing white aprons over their skirts. Ladies wore skirts in those days.” He paused to frown at my blue jeans.
“Anyway, good old Tommy said he spoke Italian, that it was an easy language. All you have to do is put an “o” after the words, see? Well, he asked those women, ‘Do-o you-o have a chicken-o?” Guess what they did? They looked like they wanted to run away, but we were GIs and hungry, so Tommy said, ‘Guess they didn’t hear me,’ and said again real loud, ‘Do-o you-o have a chicken-o?’ Those poor gals looked real confused then, so we decided to pantomime so they could understand.” Here, my grandfather flapped his arms like wings and mimicked pecking at the ground, laughing as he clucked. I laughed so hard my sides hurt.
Another time in Italy, the fighting grew intense. The enemy overwhelmed Pap Pap and his buddies. He saw a flash and blacked out. Next thing he knew, he woke in a field hospital. Everything around him shone bleach white except for the guns and the American GIs guarding them. “See, the villagers needed supplies. When they spotted us all on the ground, mostly dead, they took our clothes and jewelry. They even took our dog tags to melt down. So there I was, naked as a jaybird when they found me, a big, blond guy with no I.D. They thought I was a Hun!”
I gasped, wide eyed, hands covering my open mouth. “What happened?”
“Couldn’t tell them my name, ‘cause it’s a German name, but every good soldier knows his serial number, so I was okay. That’s when I got me this, though.” He pointed to a tattoo on his arm. A fuzzy-outlined lady in a uniform saluted. “She’s my Cracker Jack gal. Any American seeing her would know I’m a Yankee Doodle, sure enough.”
“Got another one, too. She can dance. Want to see?” He made the lady on his belly move by contorting his body.
“Pap Pap, did you have to kill anyone when you were over there?”
His blue eyes clouded over. We sat in silence on the front stoop, shoulder to shoulder. Then he reached into his mouth and removed his teeth. “Kissy kiss!” he said as he waved them at me. They dripped saliva, and his sunken-in face resembled an old mushroom.
“Ah!” I ran. I remembered my question, but I knew our war-time conversation had ended for the day.
One nippy, late autumn afternoon on that front stoop on Nash Avenue, Pap Pap regaled me with a tale of bullets whizzing past his head and only a skinny, leafless tree available for shelter. “Why didn’t you hit the ground, Pap Pap?”
“’Cause if I was going to die, I wanted to die standing like a man.”
Something in the uncustomary drawl of this pronouncement gave me pause. “Hey, wait a minute! I just saw something like that in a John Wayne movie!”
He blushed and laughed until he doubled over in a coughing fit. “You’re your mother’s daughter all right! She always called me to the center of the ring, too.”
When he died, my mom and dad put together a shadow box with his military medals, discharge papers, and the flag they had draped over his casket. I bet Pap Pap looks in on it now and then to make sure it doesn’t get dusty.
To read more letters, click on The Path!