A Soldier Never Forgets

My Mom Jenny could not open my Grandpa’s treasure chest when he died. She could not even sit in his room. She shut the door after the funeral home took him away in a black bag and left his room exactly like it was when he died in his sleep. That was one year ago today which makes today the anniversary of his death.

Mom said that the doctor who signed the death certificate said his hair and face were wet when he was found. Mom said he probably had taken a bath and had just settled down for the night. She thought maybe his sleeping pills had something to do with it all. I now know otherwise.

No one ever knew what was inside his treasure chest. I had sat on it as a child many afternoons but never saw Grandpa open it. We all thought it probably contained a few trinkets from the war; perhaps a Nazi flag he pulled  off a dead German soldier or a Nazi trinket of one type or another. No one ever knew or cared.

I wanted to know how, especially now.  Mom had gone to get her hair fixed when I opened it. I didn’t want to be told no.

Inside there were a few shattered pictures of young men that were dusty and faded. Dust was packed so thick on some of the pictures that you could not tell whether the person was a man or a boy.

Underneath the faded pictures was a dusty diary I had never seen with a cover of a soldier’s graveyard. I counted the crosses on the cover – or tried to anyway. When I reached 104, I stopped counting. I didn’t have all day to count because I figured Mom would be home soon.

Mom would never have opened the diary, much less the chest and would not have wanted me to open it. I had always  wanted to know what was inside since I was little. I prayed the pages of the dairy would not crumble into a thousand pieces because they were so brittle. A chill ran up and down my spine when I opened his diary with only one date on the first  page: 1945. There were three entries, only three. My soul wept as I read the first diary entry which had no date.

My heart wept for joy when I saw Mom and Dad and my cute little sister Jenny for the first time in 4 years. I never thought I would still be alive to know what it really feels like to be back home.

They were so happy I was home. I was too. It feels like another planet to me. Was this really the home I had left and dreamed about in the trenches of stench and corpses of my best friends rotting beside me? No one has any idea how anyone survives war, watching the men  you knew and loved die as they cried out for their own mothers. I certainly don’t.

I saw my girlfriend from long ago today. I had smelled her perfume in my imagination 324 nights in the early hours of the morning when I could not sleep or think straight. I know the number because I counted the nights. There wasn’t much else to do while waiting and shivering.

How are you? I asked her.

Good to go Henry, she said.

She talked non stop for two hours with stories about her struggles over the past four years – the gas rationing, the difficulty having enough gas to drive to the picture  show Saturday evening, the shortages of chocolate and nylon stockings, the dirty job of growing a garden which your Mom insisted was necessary. 

It was too tough to bear some days, just too tough, she explained.

She ask one how I was. Before I could collect my thoughts to answer, her new beau showed up, materializing like magic. I did not see him coming. I did not even know he existed.  She had not mentioned him in any of her three letters to me.

And on that sunny day of my re-entry home, it was the one and only time she ever asked me about the war. I saw her at  the Grocery every now and then when she gave me updates on her new car and her garden, but she never asked again.

I quickly learned to remain silent. No one could ever know or understand war. You had to be there. 

How are you doing? People would ask when I saw them for the first time.

“Good to be home,”

That was the simple answer that always worked like a charm.

And that was enough for everyone – my family, my friends and even strangers. No one wants to hear about the screams of men dying on the battlefield from wounds that would not stop bleeding. No one wants to embrace death at close hand. No one wants to know what it was really like to be so scared you wet your pants. No one ever really knew or wanted to know. And why would anyone expect them to even want to know, really know what happened?

I read. I wept. I never knew.

I always knew Grandpa went to the cemetery every Sunday by himself. Old people did that you know. I figured it was just his way of saying Hello to Grandma. Little did I know.

And then there was the second entry which I read over 10 times.-

There is a special section of the cemetery that I visit every Sunday among the hundreds of graves from those who died in war – from all wars actually. I only have to touch each grave to feel and see what happened to them.

Henry Swartz, died 1863. I saw it all. Henry died on the Gettysburg battlefield of dehydration and fright. His heart stopped. I saw it all. I felt his heart stop. Forever.

George Marx, died 1864. I saw it all. George was stabbed through his chest with a bayonet. There was smoke and blood which covered the battlefield. I saw it all. And felt it too.

It did not matter what gravestone or cross I touched, I knew how that man had died. I know how it felt. I saw it all.

I go to the cemetery every Sunday.It helps me remember and in remembering I can slowly forget. That is the real problem you see. We all want to forget and move on, but can’t.

The dead will at least  know that there is one who still lives that understands, who knows in his body and heart what it is like to die a wicked death on the battlefield.  At least one other knows and understands. It is what little I can do for the dead and forgotten.

I was just plain lucky to have survived. They weren’t.

Then there was a third entry with no date, just like the others-

Veterans day. No one in the family says anything. Life goes on as usual. I did get one question from Dan Raskles and  the Hardware Store:

Weren’t you in the war?

Yep. Good to be home though.

Yo. I guess so.

The war dead are forgotten and buried, usually not in the same place because so many body parts get separated in the explosions. Most of the corpses lay rotting under a foot of loose dirt and sand on the battlefields.

People get on with their lives on Veterans Day, with the business of eating Twinkees, buying hot Duncan Donuts right off the line hot and fixing melted Hershey bars over graham crackers.  

Little did I know.

I did not eat that day.

I never knew. My heart stopped.  My Mom always told me how happy she was the day her Dad returned home on the Queen Elizabeth – how the crowd cheered for 90 minutes straight as the shipped docked. How she cried a thousand tears of joy when she saw his shredded uniform wrapped around his emaciated chest. Little did I know what was really inside that heart, to be hidden forever until today on the anniversary of his death.

I now knew why his hair was wet when my Mom found him. My own face and hair were now drenched with the tears of a thousand soldiers who had died on the battlefield so young that happiness only knew a fleeting pause here and there.

Grandpa had cried every night of his life for the thousands of soldiers who had died in battles long forgotten by folks back home and unremembered. People were more worried about their hair permanents that would not hold for longer than five days and their Cadillac cars with air conditioning systems that could not be repaired.

I never knew – until today. May I never forget. May we always honor the men and women who died so that we could spend our lives worrying about disheveled hair dews and business shirts with sweat from the heat of a car whose air conditioning was broken. My Mom’s hair dew could always be re-plastered in time for her bridge club even when it fell flat too early in the week. The air conditioning in Dad’s Cadillac was eventually repaired in time for his promotion to Vice President. No one wanted to shake the hand of a Vice President with a sweaty shirt.

But the leaks in Grandpa’s heart could never be repaired. The tears never stopped flowing. The hamster wheel of his thoughts never stopped churning around and around and around until that final evening when the tears of twenty thousand nights had sealed his hamster wheel shut for good.

I never knew until today, the anniversary of his death. It was this moment when decided to spend my Sundays at the cemeteries of the war dead.

I would bear Grandpas cross.

I would carry on the tradition.

I would never forget as I touch into the lives of men my age who died for a cause that no one ever talks about today or even remembers.

We men who die are really just boys. Just boys.

If no one remembers, we will run out of room to bury the war dead on this precious earth that is barely large enough to absorb the tears of the dead who have already died in wars. I promise to remember. Always.

©Robert Rodgers

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