Thursday, July 30, 2015
Corresponding With Marcel
I received a letter this week from the past. I guess what I really mean is the memories written within the letter are from the past. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was sorting through my father's war memorabilia when I ran across the name of an army buddy who wrote a quick note to my dad in 1985. I Googled the man's name and found him to be still alive. I daringly called him and, to make a long story short, we have begun corresponding. His first, beautifully handwritten letter arrived this week. This kind, ninety year old gentleman took the time to send me a full page of carefully penned, cursive handwriting about my dad. Parts of the letter are written such that it sounds like he is addressing my dad. Because I have read two books on the events he is referring to, I know exactly what he is writing about. The first book is, "The Left Corner of My Heart" by Dan Morgan. The other book is, "Messengers of the Lost Battalion" by Gregory Orfalea. Dan Morgan's book had only six hundred copies printed. My dad bought one of those copies and I am now the safe keeper of it along with his other treasures.
I am by no means a war buff. My purpose in all this reading and corresponding is simply to get to know my dad, posthumously. He was a stranger to me; someone I only knew one dimensionally, as a father and provider. I took for granted that in our home, in his car, and on his clothing were paratrooper wings and Airborne insignias. Our music room and the basement were hung with war items, photographs, knives, guns, parachute silk, and a Nazi flag. Many of these items are gone now, sold to a collector some years ago, but I have come to realize that no one keeps this many mementos hanging about unless it stands for something significant. My dad didn't relate that to us, the stuff was just there. It was for his own heart to remember. I am sure that experience shaped and altered his life.
Through all this reading, I have come to understand, in detail, what a certain battle was like for a certain army unit. It is a microscopic cross section of a huge war, fought on so many fronts. But this particular battle, The Battle of the Bulge, was significant in turning the tide in World War II. And this particular unit, the 551st Paratrooper Infantry Battalion, did something very brave indeed. As stated on the cover of Gregory Orfalea's book, "Why was the 551st sent to its destruction in a desperate assault on the village of Rochelinval during the Battle of the Bulge? And finally, how could the handful of frostbitten, bloodstained renegades that were the 551st's walking wounded actually take Rochelinval and win the day?" And I wonder, how did my dad survive that? This is clearly not the man I knew. My dad was gentle and quiet. Marcel writes about becoming separated from my dad in Belgium only to meet up again afterward in rehab, he with a broken hand, my dad with frozen feet. But the fondest memory, by far, is Marcel's memory of my dad carrying his rifle on his left arm and his guitar on the other. Now that sounds like my dad.
And so, a new realization of what heroism means comes to mind. Our soldiers are not only heroes in the obvious sense, for fighting a war. That is certainly bravery. Soldiers who put their lives on the line in an ultimate sacrifice for their countrymen and then return home to lead unassuming lives, marrying, raising families, quietly contributing to society; they are truly heroes. I am beginning to see that it's not only what a hero does in that moment of bravery that makes him a hero, but how he carries himself forward to live his life. That a man can live under brutal conditions, suffer unimaginably, experience deep sorrow for the loss of friends at his side, and go on to live a productive life as though, on the surface, nothing has happened; to me, this is astounding.
Something totally unrelated has mingled into my thoughts on this topic this week. My niece recently had her car stolen outside her apartment in D.C. while she slept at night. It was an expensive car for which her father worked very hard to provide her. It was stressful, but they got it sorted out with the insurance and police, end of story. Now here's the catch. The car turned up a week later, dirty and beat up. My brother-in-law had to pay to have it towed and brought home. A few days later, a rap video surfaces. (How the police saw it, I have no idea) Whose car should be featured in the video, but my niece's. A bunch of pubescent thugs wearing designer duds, waving wads of money while giving the finger and rapping the N-word, about shooting everybody up, shows the lead rapper driving off in my niece's car. Her license plate and college parking sticker are still on it in plain view. The boy was barely tall enough to see above the steering wheel. So what does this have to do with anything, you ask? Well, these thugs want to be somebody. They are their own self-worshipping heroes. They want something for nothing and they want it to be big. They don't want to earn it; they steal it. You know what my dad used to say about guys like this? "They need to throw them in the army. That'll straighten 'em out. The dirty, rotten sonsa expletives." That's what my dad would say. He strongly believed that the army had a way of turning thugs into heroes.