On December 17th, 1943, my Dad was, in his words “all shot up”.
That was part of the job that day, I guess. He was a soldier, a simple private in General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army Group, a grunt in 143rd Infantry Regiment.
Like most World War Two vets, Dad never (and I mean never) talked about his army experiences, until well into retirement. In the 1970’s, he’d become a rather respected pillar in my little hometown (although I’ve never used that term to describe him before), and he was elected Mayor. One year, he was asked to make a speech to a local VFW confab of some repute, which he did, and for which he won an award.
I asked him, after the award arrived, why he never joined the VFW.
“Oh, hell.” he said, puffing his then-omnipresent pipe stuffed with Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco, “I stopped being a soldier the minute they let me off the boat in New York Harbor”.
But, I wonder…
Like I say, on December 17th, Dad was wounded doing what his superiors told him to do. The fighting had drawn to a quickly-vanishing stalemate near the town of San Pietro, after our tanks had been unable to plow a hole through the winter defensive lines that German General Kesselring had established. The going was tough, even though the Royal Italian Army had joined the fray a few weeks before Dad arrived on Italian soil.
It was all mud, Dad said. “Mud and Olive groves. And rock. It was about as good a place to have a war as any” he said. “But I’ll never forget the mud. It was three foot deep in some places”
So, the Germans were left holding the Italian bag, and were holding on tight. They’d back up, then advance. Where were the German guns? Where did they go? The 88’s were wrecking havoc on the Americans, and the krauts kept moving them around, seemingly. And then they all reached a strange moment of stasis. “Go draw fire,” he was told.
“Go screw yourself” would have been my reply. But, Dad and his little squad did just that.
“You could hear the bullets whizzing by in the trees above you. You got used to that. But, after that, we made it back to our line, and just as I was trying to make it back to a hole, I heard this high pitched screaming whistle –sheeeeeeeeee– and I hit the ground.”
Dad then described how a big tree about twenty yards from him “blew right out of the earth”. He also felt a huge burning pain in his right leg, while he still lay prone on the ground. “I hopped up, right away. It didn’t feel that bad at first. And, when I stood up, I was looking right at the roots of that tree. And hanging from it, right in front of me, about three feet away, was one of those little wooden anti-personnel mines. Right in front of me, and it didn’t go off.”
He made some laughing, wistful allusion to it not being his time to go, evidently.
The shrapnel from the explosion (remember, Dad was lying on the ground, on his belly, away from the burst) cut deep into his lower leg, just above his the Achilles tendon. It traveled around his leg, and shot out just below his knee-cap, flaying his calf muscle open– and almost severing the sinew and tendon completely.
“I actually got up and ran for about fifty yards,” he said. “But then, I kinda just fell over. The medic was right there, and they put me on the hood of a jeep to take me back to the aid station.” He said he stayed on the stretcher on top of the jeep “forever”, but once the driver had a couple other wounded guys to take back, and started to drive, Dad said the jolt of the sudden up and down jostling of the jeep seared his entire being with unendurable pain.
“I’ve never felt such pain. Whew-ee,” he said. It was December 17th, 1943.
From there, he was sent to a chain of field hospitals, where he fought off one serious infection after another. “Sulfa drugs saved my life”, he told me. Eventually, he made it back to a hospital in Algiers, where, on Christmas Day, he was given a hot turkey dinner– which he could not eat. “Snow was blowing in under the tent wall” Dad said, “And I will always remember snow on the bottom of my blanket in that hospital. I had no idea it could snow in Africa, and be so cold. What a lousy Christmas that was.”
He had just turned 19.
It wasn’t until later in the spring of 1944 that the Army surgeons finally determined –once and for all– that Dad’s leg had been saved. He’d come close on at least one occasion to having it amputated. Gas gangrene had set in, and he’d had to lie on a hospital cot on a morphine holiday while they kept the wound open to the air for more than a week. Field hospitals, mud, gas gangrene, surgeries, skin grafts, and on and on and on.
The army felt that Dad had done enough at the front after that, and they made him a baker’s helper, a signal decorder, a barber. He still has the electric trimmer he was given to shear the heads of his comrades.
He came home, on a 30-day leave in the Spring of 1945. Back in his hometown and sleeping on in his own bedroom, on the same bed he’d had since he was a tot, his mother woke him late one morning to tell him the the Japanese had surrendered. The war was over.
Of course, the war wasn’t quite over for Dad. He wasn’t mustered out until late that October, but, still, he’d made it home.
The story after that is the one repeated by millions of returning vets: Recuperation, healing, hitting the booze, meeting women, talking with God, working, working, working, to put back together the shards of an interrupted life.
The divergence of the story for Dad came early, when he found out that all the money he’d been sending home from his meager Army wages, which he understood were to be safely squirreled away for his eventual return, had been spent by HIS father, who was notoriously lousy with money, and probably drank a certain amount of it.
He was essentially broke– physically, emotionally, monetarily.
But, he got up every morning, and went to work. First this job, then that. He helped is dad for a while in his house-painting business. Then he worked for a sign painter, doing show-card work. Then, he finally landed a job with Michigan Bell, designing yellow-page comp art, which salesmen would show to prospective clients. He was paid $1 per ad.
“I did a thousand of them in two weeks once,” he told me, “And I married your mother with the $1,000”. That was princely amount in the high summer of 1952.
Later, he started his own sign company. “All I had was a couple of brushes, and a tea-cup of paint. But, I made it work.”
Indeed. He retired in 1987, living off the frugal investments in land and some CD’s. He’s thus lived ever since.
President Obama: All the Federal Government ever did for my father was ship him half-way across the Globe, where he was used (by his own declaration) as “cannon fodder”. He lay in agony for weeks in one foul army hospital after another, often laying in canvas cots. He never even saw the miniscule wages he made from that. The VA has often been more of a hindrance to his healthcare than a help.
The onion layers of Judeo-Christian tradition, and the magnificent sinew of cultural memory and experience have been an invaluable treasure to my father, and his family. The Federal Government, though, has mostly been a pain in his ass. Or leg, more literally.
Oh, sure, he’s enjoyed the fruits of a strong national defense. The nuclear umbrella is rather nice. But, as I say, I can point to my Dad and say, “he’s earned it, don’t you think?”.
Mostly, though, the Federal Government has tormented and harassed my Dad, demanding a lifetime of taxes, bending his will to their demands. As a private entrepreneur his entire life, all the government has ever done is hound him for permits, submit to their regulations, and stick their grubby hands in his wallet. One is left to wonder what supportive means he would have created over his lifetime if they’d not confiscated so much of his labor in the form of taxes. Yes, he’s availed himself of MediCare: But it availed themselves of him first.
He has built moderately successful businesses, which allowed him to retire in relative comfort without being a burden to his neighbors. He has created by the vitality of his own ideas, his own work ethic, his own courage and resourcefulness. And, dare I say, his own discipline, and an innate desire to provide a modern living for his own family which he never enjoyed when he was young.
That the roads were paved, and the fire department staffed was nice. The Police Protection is a bonus, but, we lived in the parts of America where it was pretty safe anyway. And, he’d have gotten on nicely even if they weren’t. And besides, he’d paid for all these things –and so many more– with every penny he forked over to the bureaucrats.
In your comments, Barack (I will no longer address you with the honorarium “President”; You’ve attacked my father, and this is unforgivable), you’ve revealed not only a seething hatred for the American way of life and it’s magnificent people, you’ve displayed a jaw-dropping ignorance of the way Americans create, and maintain, wealth.
They do it with a few brushes, and a teacup of paint.
And years and years and years of labor. It’s called “value added”, and it’s what Government never, ever, creates.
Malcontents that sit with rapt attention in the hedonistic warrens of 1970’s Honolulu at the knee of Frank Davis may despise this reality, along with the patriotic images of my Dad. They are more attuned to envy and sloth. But, unlike your drunken fool rascal of a father, my Dad shouldered the burden of his country’s calling, his families material needs, and the resolute toil of creating a better nation for his kids. He took nothing — nothing–, and made something.
You, Barack, have taken a very real something, and made a big nothing.
What a damnable, damnable comment from an American President..