Sunday, January 21, 2007
A Message From Uncle Joe
I got an e-mail from my Uncle Joe in Los Angeles today.
Joe is my father's younger brother, the last surviving male in my dad's family I believe; he wanted to share some of his memories of my father as a young man.
It's so hard for me to imagine my father as young so I really appreciated reading what Joe had to say.
"As a young man, "Joe wrote, "Jim could always be recognized by the speed with which he raced from one place to another.
"He ran constantly--up and down the four flights of stairs in the tenement we called home--to and from school--down to the baseball field or just off wildly in some direction to see a friend."
Joe said my father played sandlot football and baseball, sometimes with a guy named Sid who would grow up to be Paddy Chayefsky, the author of Marty, Network, and The Hospital, to name a few.
I remember my dad talking about Paddy Chayefsky. He told me one time they were playing a game and the loser had to pull some goofy stunt. Paddy was the loser and my father said he should sit over a sewer with a fishing pole.
The neighborhood cop came by--back when there were neighborhood cops--and got rather annoyed.
"What are you doing?" the cop asked.
"I'm sorry, officer," Paddy said. "I did it on a dare."
"I'll fan your ass on a dare," the cop shouted and Paddy made himself scarce, as the saying goes.
"Dancing was another of his great passions," Joe wrote. "His constant running as a pre-teen morphed into the Lindy, the Conga, and one of those dances that defined the era and the city--the Big Apple."
Then Pearl Harbor was attacked and my father was drafted. He was just 20 years old when he went into the army and soon became a tech sergeant a platoon leader. I had no idea he was so young; I guess I just refused to do the math.
I remember when I turned 20; I had a birthday party in my house with all my family around me. When my father was that age, he was being shot at, wounded, and killing other soldiers.
He once told me that his friends threw a party for him before he shipped out. He said his friends held a phony wake for him, where they had him lie down and then wrapped him up with a sheet. It was their way of dealing with the unspeakable.
"It is this period that I have some of my fondest remembrances of Jim," my uncle wrote, "We exchanged many letters; his were alway informative and often hilarious. He had a natural knack for telling the difficulties of army life while making them humorous."
Oh, yes, the war stories. I grew hearing those tales of army life and I never got tired of them. Last Christmas, I actually filled in for my dad when his memory had gotten so poor he couldn't remember his army experiences. But I knew them backwards and forwards and I stepped in for him.
Man At War
"He was fortunate in missing the D-day invasion but he fought in France, Belguim, Holland,and Germany--bitter, terrible fighting where he was losing close friends and felt responsible for their loss."
A neighbor who was also in my father's unit said he saw my dad carried from a canal in Holland after he and a squad of soldiers had been pinned down for three days in freezing water by a German tank.
Another time, Joe said, my father spent a couple of days hunkered down in a shallow shell hole in Germany while the Germans dropped a record number of artillery shells on the area.
"No one can expect to escape completely whole from those kinds of experiences," my uncle wrote. "Jim was lucky enough to have survived. His fathering a family of intelligent, well-educated individuals is a legacy of which he could be proud. As I'm sure he was."
Well, Joe, I can't vouch for that last time, especially when it comes to myself, but I love you for writing it.
I have a clearer picture of what kind of man my father was now, of the person he was long before I showed up. I think the war experiences scarred him more than we really can understand. I've heard stories about the "shellhole" incidents, but I'd like to keep them to myself for the time being.
Having gone through the Depression and the horrors of war, can we really be surprised if my father was given to fits of rage, that he had a mean streak that could cloud his vision? He was often in competition with us and I suppose he was angry for losing his youth on the battlefield.
Maybe my father's story is a warning as well about how dangerous is to rush off to war. Wars are easier to start than they are to stop and not all the victims come home in body bags. A lot of them walk back into society, get jobs, and start families. But they're never really a part of this world.
War isn't like the goddamn movies, it isn't about parades and flag-waving and marching in formation. It's about young men--and now young women--dying, suffering terrible wounds, and losing pieces of their souls.
Think about that, all you blogging tough guys who are so willing to send somebody else's loved ones into the heat of battle. If war is so glorious, why don't you lead the charge?
I am so glad Joe took the time to write this e-mail. It makes me wish I could talk to my father one last time. I'd tell him how sorry I was that we fought all those times; how proud I am of him, and how much I love him.
But I can't tell him that, so I'll keep telling the world.