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The ground rumbled just a little as it always did when the bus’s brakes squeaked it to a halt. I got on, and found a seat next to an older gentleman reading a book.
We nodded, and swayed back and forth with the motion in the traffic, and over time, I saw a pattern. He’d be there when I got on, and would be there about once a month. While everyone else insulated themselves from the rest of the passengers with their headphones and their smart phones, the older gentleman had his in a book that he was perfectly willing to put down. I made it a point to sit next to him, just to chat.
It took awhile, but I got to know him a little better. He always wore a baseball cap with USMC embroidered on the front, was always friendly, and seemed genuinely happy to see me. I got the impression he was going for his monthly checkup at the VA hospital.
At one point, he was holding the book in his right hand, and I saw that he was missing most of the index finger there. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, everything else I could see seemed to be in perfect order, and he was clearly used to it. Eventually I got up enough courage to ask how that happened, expecting to hear some story involving power tools or some action that had been preceded by the phrase, “Here, hold my beer.”
“Japanese sniper,” he said, turning his hand and looking at it, as if for the first time noticing that finger was gone.
“A… a what?”
And the older gentleman on the bus faded into the background as the story of a strapping 18 year old in the jungles of the South Pacific came out. He’d been in the Marine Corps, in the Pacific, during WWII, and they’d been dropped off at the south end of an island, and were to take the airfield on the north end. That was the book he’d been reading, a history of his unit. They had to get there at a very specific time, as a great part of the upcoming battle depended on that airfield being usable, and they had to take it. He showed me the map, and the huge swamp they’d had no choice but to go through, not around.
He talked so matter-of-factly about how they had to hike in triple digit temperatures through jungle, especially through that swamp. He held both arms up high as he showed me how he kept his rifle out of the water and mud to keep it dry.
They got to their destination, where he unknowingly had his appointment with the Japanese sniper, who’d been trained to shoot off soldier’s trigger fingers, and that’s precisely what he’d done.
As we were both looking at that stump of a finger, he lost in his memories while I was trying to imagine what those memories were like, the bus stopped, and we both looked up. I realized I was at my own destination. I thanked him for sharing that part of himself with me, and for his time and his service, and got off the bus, reluctantly coming back from that hot, humid airfield I’d been at in my mind to a street full of honking cars and rumbling buses, grateful for the privilege of the history lesson I’d just gotten first hand.
From someone who had been there.
So, on this Sunday morning, Memorial day, I find myself thinking of and remembering those of you who have served your countries, on the front lines or just as importantly, holding down the fort at home, whether that’s my Opa, or my dad, or my mom and Oma during WWII, Grampa, Grandma, or my uncles on both sides, my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew, or Chris, Buck, Jon, Kevin, Brian, Ralph, Beth, Al, Jae, Denny, as well as so many others who never made it home, or brought back reminders of that time they gave more than we could possibly imagine.
I was talking to my mom the other day about an email we’d both received – about an American soldier in WWII and how he had done brave things on the battlefield. For example, killing the enemy, saving his compatriots, just doing what soldiers do.
And she, having grown up in Germany during World War II, sent me this note:
You know Tom-Son, looking at war and the so-called ‘victories’ from both sides, something became clear to me during that war. I was between 10 and 14. In school we talked about how many air planes had been shot down, how many ‘Panzer’ (tanks) or ‘Gefangene’ (captured, how many ‘enemy soldiers’ were killed, until…
Pastor Gotthilf Hoelzer one day somberly made the remark
“THEY WERE ALL THE SON OF A MOTHER”
That brought those ‘victories’ into perspective.
During the war, there was no TV. Everyone who had one huddled around a radio in the evenings to hear the “special bulletins”, the “Sondermeldungen”, to hear how the war was going.
Mom was born in 1929, in Germany, at the height of the Depression. This is the Depression that Hitler got Germany out of. The Depression where he convinced many people that he was the right person to be their “leader” – their “Führer” – before things went completely crazy. The unemployment situation was absolutely dire, and mom’s parents – my grandparents – had found employment by working at the milk “Sammelstelle” – a collection station where the farmers would bring their milk to be processed and sent to the larger dairies.
Mom told me just a short paragraph of a story – a story that boils down to six words, but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes:
“I remember one family on our ‘milk run’ in Hanseatenstrasse. Their soldier was there when Stalingrad was surrnounded and was expected to be taken by the Russians. The German troops were trapped. The adults of that family were huddled around their radio to listen to the ‘Sondermeldungen,’ knowing that they would not see their man come back. They were all crying. Their little girl did not understand and she said : “Lasset me doch au mit-heula’. (essentially: “Tell me what’s going on so I can cry with you”) She sensed that all those hearts around her were breaking and she wanted to know why…
It was most likely that the adults were crying about her Dad.”
And a flood of images came to my mind.
…the chores still needed to be done, but they were rushed so that everyone could gather around the radio to hear the news of the day. The husband, the father, the brother, the son of someone in that room, was in Stalingrad. Hitler himself had ordered that there would be no surrender. The 6th Army of the Wehrmacht, which had stormed into the city that summer was either decimated or being left there to die.
In that moment, the adults realized that their son would not come home. His father, who up until that moment had been looking forward to sitting down with him and hearing his stories, and in hearing them, would relive some of his own battles in WWI. But he realized as he listened to this news, that he would not hear them, or his son’s voice, ever again. He remembered back, remembered seeing his wide open, trusting eyes as he, like all fathers, tossed his little boy into the air and caught him again and again, his laughter ringing like a joyous bell. He remembered his birthdays, his baptism and confirmation in the church, and his marriage at the little town church flooded his mind as the tears flooded his eyes. He remembered how he was able to sit down, after a hard day’s work, and celebrate that German tradition of ‘Feierabend’ which, while hard to translate into English, can best be summarized by the meaning behind the phrase “It’s Miller Time” .The work is done, it’s time to rest. He’d been looking forward to the end of the war, to be able to have a huge Feierabend with his son, because the work – the war, would be over.
But there would not be any more Feierabends with his son.
And he wept.
Unashamedly, he wept.
For the companionship he would no longer have with his son, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of sons from their fathers.
The enormity of what he was hearing on the radio was too much to bear. He tried to read his wife’s expression, and saw the sorrow of a mother who’s being told she’s lost her only son. She was inconsolable. The words she heard from the radio, those of victories for the fatherland, of bravery and sacrifice, were overcome by her own memories. As she sat there, the words turning into a dull buzz in the background, she remembered the moment when she knew she was going to have a son, the first spark of life inside her. She remembered waiting to be sure, and then remembered the simultaneous look of shock, doubt, surprise, and joy in her husband’s eyes as he realized he was going to be a father. She remembered sharing that special communion a mother has with her child as she nursed him. She remembered his first day of school and his last. She remembered the gleam in his eye when he told her about that very special girl, the one he wanted to become his wife. She remembered their wedding day, and how this girl became part of their family.
She remembered his laugh, that belly laugh that can only come from the absolute, unrestrained joy of a little boy, and how it had gotten so much lower in tone over the years, but still, the joy was there. She loved to watch, and listen, as he and that special girl laughed together.
And she realized that she would never hear that laugh again, not from her son, and not from that special girl.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her son, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of sons from their mothers.
She held that special girl in her arms, trying to support her, as she was lost in her own thoughts of him.
He’d been in her class, in school. They’d grown up together. They’d laughed and had a history together that started long before the day they walked down the aisle. And as her vision blurred with tears, she saw images she knew she’d never see again.
She remembered the bashful look in her husband’s eyes the first time he talked to her, the nervous look on the day he proposed to her, and the confident, anything but bashful, look on the day they were married. A part of her smiled at that memory.
She remembered the moment when she realized she was going to have his child. She remembered waiting to be sure, and then remembered the simultaneous look of shock, doubt, surprise, and joy in her husband’s eyes as he realized he was going to be a father.
She remembered seeing her daughter’s wide open, trusting eyes as he, like all fathers, tossed his little girl into the air and caught her again and again, her laughter ringing like a joyous bell. She remembered the tough times, and how hard he worked to keep food on the table, and a roof over their heads and how he, despite the Depression, had kept them fed. She remembered quiet evenings sitting by lamp light, quietly sewing, or reading, no words, just companionship, and how much that meant to her.
She remembered when everyone had chipped in and bought the radio, and how it had filled the room with music and laughter; how they had invited friends over and they were able to dance as if they had their own orchestra.
She remembered the light in his eyes as he saw his daughter take her first steps, and how once that happened, there was no stopping her.
And she remembered trying to decide whether to be proud or horrified, or both, when the draft notice came in the mail. She remembered her guarded tears as a train took him to parts unknown for basic training, and the anguished tears she shared with his mother after the train was gone, and they knew he wouldn’t see them.
She remembered that first visit home – how he’d changed, and how proud he looked in that uniform. There was still a sense of pride in her, but there was also an uneasiness that that took quite a bit of strength to keep from turning into outright terror at the things that can happen to a soldier, both to him and by him.
She remembered looking at his hands, the ones that had recently held a new life, wondering if they would be asked – or ordered – to take a life.
She remembered the next trip – the last one – in spring, when he wasn’t allowed to tell her where he was going. She remembered holding him fiercely, and how, as she looked into his eyes, she saw the love, the caring, the gentleness of the man she knew, and she remembered, how the sound of the train whistle changed that completely. She saw the eyes of her husband turn from the look of one who gives and nurtures life, into the look of a soldier, one who takes it.
She remembered recoiling at the shock of this transformation, and how he had pulled away from her. Both of them had brave faces, both had heavy hearts. He turned, walked toward the train, and only once turned to look back. In that moment, she saw, for a split second, the eyes of her husband saying goodbye. Neither of them knew it would be their last .
At first, the radio reports and the newspaper accounts were all full of victories and successes. Then, as the months wore on, September came and went. Hitler had said that Stalingrad would have fallen by then, but it hadn’t. October came, November came, the Russian winter came, and the news then was that the 6th army had been cut off and surrounded. The news reports confidently said that a relief force was fighting its way down to help them, but the Russians fought them off. Then Goering said he’d resupply what remained of the army with 750 tons of supplies a day, by air. But there weren’t enough airplanes left to even get one third of that, and like so many other things in this war that they’d been led to believe were necessary and would succeed, this had failed as well.
They’d been listening warily to every news report, wondering how much of what they were hearing was the truth and how much was lies. They would get bits and pieces of information about what was happening, and it would, all culminate in an overwhelming sense of dread as the news reports came in. Every night, they sat by the radio – the thing that had brought so much joy, laughter, and music, but now it brought nothing but strident propaganda and death.
And then the news reports stopped altogether.
She wasn’t sure exactly of the moment it happened, but somewhere in those weeks of silence from the eastern front that cold winter, she knew. She knew she would never see her husband again. She knew she would never hear his laughter again, or see the look of love in his eyes as she felt his love inside her. She knew she would raise their daughter without him. She knew that she would never again be able to drowsily reach over to his side of their bed and feel his warmth, or hear his soft breathing. She knew now that she would miss even his irritating habits, like cutting his fingernails with his pocket knife. She would never have to ask him to clean up the cut off fingernails again, or clean his dishes off the kitchen table after dinner. She knew she’d never hear him say grace in that wonderful way he said it, thanking God for the simplest of meals, as if it were a feast, fit for a king. He made her so proud when he did that. He was grateful, even for the little things. She remembered that. Oh, what she’d do for those little things – to hear him say grace again, to hear his breathing, to hear him tell her what a good breakfast she’d made, to feel him lift her off the floor in that all enveloping hug he’d always used to say good bye. And she realized, with a start, that when he’d said goodbye that last time, at the train station, that he hadn’t lifted her up like he always did as he said goodbye…
Somehow she knew that from that moment, nothing would ever be the same.
The news reports 3 weeks later confirmed it.
She would not hear his voice again.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her husband, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of husbands from their wives.
She remembered her first married Christmas without him, just a few weeks earlier. They were supposed to be done with Stalingrad by September, and here it was more than 3 months later. They did what they could to make it a joyous Christmas, with Mama, and Oma, and Opa, but it seemed hollow. Through it all, the church service on Christmas Eve, and the “Heiliger Abend” later at home, her – their – daughter kept looking at the door, and kept asking, “Wo ist Papa?” (Where’s Papa?)
Christmas and New Year’s came and went, and still no news.
Finally, in late January, there was news.
No, not just news.
The regular radio programming was interrupted by music, and then, The News.
The relief force had failed.
Goering’s Luftwaffe had failed.
Stalingrad had fallen.
It was so hard to look her daughter in the eye as she tried to give her the news that so many mothers had had to give their children over the last few years, that their father had joined the thousands, the millions, who had “fallen” in the war. They used that word, in their dialect, “Er isch g’falla” – “Er ist gefallen” – “He fell”.
It didn’t mean that he’d fallen.
It meant, quite simply, that he’d been killed.
Stalingrad had fallen.
A son, a husband, a father, had fallen.
And she wept – for him, how cold and brutal it must have been – she couldn’t imagine and didn’t want to.
She wept, for her daughter, who would never again feel the gentle touch of her father’s rough, work worn hand, hear his laugh, hear his deep voice call her name.
She wept for his parents, now across the room together, but each suffering their own world of pain, realizing their legacy was at an end.
And she wept for herself, that she would not be able to grow old together with him.
And as her daughter said, “Lasset me doch au mit-heula” – “Lass mich doch auch mit heulen” – “Tell me what’s going on, so I can cry with you” – she held her, hugged her, lifted her up off the floor like her father used to, like her husband used to, and as the radio droned on in the background, mother and daughter melted into each other, and the little girl finally understood.
She would not hear his voice again.
And she wept.
Unashamedly, she wept.
For the companionship she would no longer have with her Papa, for the laughter they would no longer share, for this stupid war that was taking thousands of Papas from their little girls.
Her mother realized she would not be the only child who lived through that war who lost a father. But even still – for months afterwards, the little girl would stand at the window every day, waiting for her Papa. She wanted her Papa to know that he wasn’t alone, that she was there, waiting for him, that his little girl hadn’t forgotten him.
The finality of it all, the stupidity of it all, the arrogance of it all, was just too much. Every day there’d been reports of so and so many thousands of the enemies killed – and she realized, that for every one of them, every one of them, this act was being played out, too… Every day, in Germany, in Russia, in countries far and wide in this war, in living rooms and kitchens, in barns and shops, in factories and train stations, someone was getting news that a beloved part of their life had been savagely torn from their heart.
Of the million soldiers in the Wehrmacht, The German 6th Army, 750,000 had been killed or wounded. Many more simply froze or starved to death. After the siege, the 91,000 left in the city had surrendered. Of those, only 6,000 would ever see what they knew as the fatherland again.
Mom went on:
On the one side of the Strenger Haus (where she grew up) was Karl Beisswenger (with 3 children) and on the other, my cousin Karl Klotz (2 children, Kurt u. Elsbeth), who never came back from that war. And upstairs, it was Paule Rosenberger’s father.
That’s the face of war.
No, only part of the face of war.
That’s not mentioning the dead from the ‘Bomben-angriffe’. (Bombing attacks)
I better not get into that.
War is Hell.
On both sides.
The images came unbidden – in the blink of an eye, if you will. A story that could be told in six words – but at the same time, could not be told in a hundred lifetimes.