Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Sentry

My dad died last night. Thought, feelings, and memories are too tumbled to express right now, but I have posted an essay I wrote about him a few years back. Although frank, it is with love and respect to the man who had such a part in shaping me.
                                                        The Sentry

He carried dead men around with him. But we didn’t know it then. We thought he was just an unpredictable man─ patting you on the behind one minute, swatting you alongside the head the next.
He owned a small tree service business in Vermont, which meant he was able to work about seven months out of the year when the state wasn’t buried under snow. Some years he prospered. He bought a small cabin cruiser and red MG sports car. We went on little vacations, stayed in cabins in the Adirondacks, and camped out in secluded bays on the boat. And no matter how often he warned us we wouldn’t be getting much for Christmas that year, we always did.
Other years he relied on his hunting skills to provide us food. The opening of duck season in October ushered in the non-packaged-meat months. My mother stoically plucked the feathers from the geese hanging upside-down on the back porch and found hundreds of ways to cook the meat so we wouldn’t complain. November was as much about deer hunting as it was Thanksgiving. We ran to the window each evening as he returned from the day’s hunt to see if an antlered head hung off the back of the truck.
 In February, Lake Champlain offered up her bounty of little fish called smelt. I was thankful for two reasons: I liked smelt, and spring was in sight, which meant packaged meat.
He bragged about us to friends and ignored us at the dinner table, only emerging from behind the paper to tell someone to pass the bread. We were confused by the glimpses of his love set against the glare of his anger. We didn’t know about the silent sentry who had accompanied him home from war years ago onboard an old Liberty ship. The sentry who still stood watch over the door of his memories.
He went straight to work after returning from the war. People had told him that was the best thing to do; it would help him forget. His conclusion so many years later—“It didn’t.” One day after he retired and had more unoccupied time, he armed himself with a computer and freed those old, but still unhealed memories, filling page after page with inky letters that formed the thoughts his lips could never express. He printed them out, bound them between orange sheets of cardstock, and handed a copy to each of us with an understated, “This is my war story.”
I am sorry I was so full of my own life, I wasn’t interested in his. I didn’t perceive his attempt to apologize, to proffer an explanation about himself that might soften my memory. I don’t even remember the day, probably months later, that I picked up his manuscript and began reading:
Combat: My Worst Days
Christmas Eve, 1944. We went into an attack on the town of Hollar, Luxembourg. On the approach to the town, we came under mortar fire. They were the so called screaming meemies of WWI fame. The last I remember was seeing a large flash. I was knocked out by the concussion.
The Day after Christmas, 1944. My daughter Barbara's birthday. We were awakened about 2:00 A.M.  Ate a K- ration breakfast in a stable.  I sat on a dead hog. I was in dread of this day. I did not want to be killed on my daughter's birthday. `
He wasn’t killed on that day, or on any of the many others that he spent crawling through snow camouflaged by a sheet over his helmet, sleeping in holes and in barns, with dead animals, with dead men. But the juxtaposition of the soldier and the father, of the giver or taker of life, followed him long after the war ended. Sometimes the edges bled together leaving him frustrated and speechless.
He had been an infantryman, that frontline class of soldiers who suffered such severe hardships and casualties that they were awarded a special badge of honor. He earned his Combat Infantry Badge in the Battle of the Bulge as a replacement for the Fifth Division in the Third Army, “Patton’s Blood.” With each man replaced, he considered his own finite time. His newly expressed fears spilled onto the page:
I think the worst part was the waiting to go into the attack. At that time you had to face your God with the realization that you and He could be looking at each other very soon. Once the shooting started, you were too busy to think about much except staying alive. However, after seeing a lot of my friends killed, I began to think as each one left it was coming nearer and nearer to my turn and my nerves began to leave me. I fully believe it was only the grace of God and some of the skills I learned hunting deer in Vermont that brought me through.
I tried to superimpose the images from those pages on my own children, themselves older than the twenty-five years he was at the time, but I could find no place of familiarity. None of them had lived outside in the snow and cold and gone without a bath for over two months. None of them had slept in a slit trench, arms wrapped around a buddy to keep warm, only to witness that same buddy’s helmet fly off his head, and his lifeblood stain the foreign snow the next day. None of them had to face a solitary enemy soldier one lonely night and decide whether to kill or let live.
 He titled his story The Battle of the Bulge: As Seen Through the Eyes of One GI Who Was There. Perhaps he was offering us a personalized version of war. But it wasn’t just a long-ago foreign war I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. The morning sun spread across the pages as I read. None of the events in our lives had changed; they just looked different caught in this light.
 I finished reading the last page, page twenty-one, and gave my own silent salute to this soldier, my father.

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