Friday, November 11, 2011

War Stories

Popeye lived in a little Wisconsin railroad town, in a tall, ugly brick house across from the yards. He was a bulldog, barrel-chested and gargoyle-faced, the terror of every cat for six blocks, and the terror, too, of the unfortunate fellow who played the bass drum in the town band.

Small town life was good for a dog in those days. There were no such things as leash laws, cars were few and usually driven slowly to save on gas, and nobody panicked and called Animal Control when he showed up at the high school every afternoon and threw himself down outside the gymnasium doors to wait until his boy came out.

On the morning of his eighteenth birthday Popeye’s boy and two of his friends hitched a ride down to the recruiting office in Madison. A few days later he and a thousand other teenagers were at Camp Custer, Michigan going through that time-honored military tradition known as induction; and as part of the process, each lad was handed a box and ordered to take off every stitch of civilian clothing so that it could be sent back to their families. When the package arrived, the boy’s mother took it to his room to unpack, only to discover, after she had everything put away, that there was a shoe missing.

Now, she was a Depression survivor, a single mother who kept her children fed and clothed and housed at the cost of the kind of desperate pinching and scraping few of us can imagine today. The habits of frugality were deeply cut into her mind and spirit, and the fact that her son – or the Army – had lost one of his good shoes distressed her no end.

A few weeks went by and it was time for the annual household spring-cleaning, and that meant it was also time to wash Popeye’s bed. When she lifted the ratty old blanket where he slept each night from the corner of the kitchen porch, out rolled a boy’s shoe.

In January 1945, near a town called Haguenau, the infantry law of averages finally caught up with Popeye’s boy. He was not quite twenty years old. The unit that took him prisoner had a kind-hearted medic who somehow found him some milk to drink and then took out a rosary, telling him sadly that he had no bandages, morphine or sulfa --“Ich kann nur beten,” all I can do is pray.

Four days later the Allies counter-attacked and Popeye’s boy managed to crawl back to his own lines. Space on medical flights going to the States was limited to those with a better chance of survival, so the Army evac’d him to a hospital near Sacre Coeur and waited for him to die. When it finally became apparent he had no intention of obliging, they shipped him home minus parts of his feet – one of his captors pinched his jump boots and gangrene set in after they froze – and with a suppurating hole in his chest and an impressive array of metal in his throat, legs and back.

The doctors decided that he would be a cripple for the rest of his life, so of course he not only made himself walk again, but he also wrangled horses, rode motorcycles, hunted, played ball, and became a respectably proficient saber fencer. The GI Bill made it possible for him to be the first person in his family to go to college. He decided he liked academic life and made a career for himself teaching German Languages and Literature at a small Midwestern university for thirty years. He won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Goethe Institute in Munich, becoming good friends with some of the German veterans he met there.

On fine days he walked to work, and he made a point of never using the elevator even though for many years his office was on the fifth floor. Four of his children enlisted in the military and two of his grandsons are now on active duty.

Popeye did not live to see his boy come home, but there were always other bulldogs panting along behind him on his morning and evening walks. To Popeye’s boy, they were the only breed worth owning.


H J Hess said...

Thank you for posting this lovely tribute. Beautiful words about a beautiful person (and his dog).
And thank YOU and yours for serving.
My brother and uncle are also veterans.
Happy Veterans Day.

Lydia said...

Thank you, Shay. Thank you, Popeye's Boy.

Viviana said...

Excellent Veteran's Day post - thank you.

Packrat said...

You sure know how to make a grown woman cry. Thank you, Shay, for sharing this with us. Thanks to you and all those have served our country (for us!).

Ladytats said...

a catch in my throat and tears stinging in my eyes.

tattrldy said...

Thanks for the great story. Thank you and the Spousal Unit for your service to our country.

Anonymous said...

i keep on nipping to read your blog, i have to say i'm smitten. absolutely gorgeous story, thanks for sharing.
tanja/aberdeen (scotland)

Julie said...

Thank you to all from the US who gave so much during those terrible years in Europe.

Sam said...

I agree with Packrat, I teared up at Popeye's love for his boy and the boy's love of country and Popeye. Thank you.