Both of my grandfathers were named Charles, and both were in WWII. One got lucky–he was a cook in the navy, never really saw combat, as I understand it. The other was in the infantry, lots of foreign soil on his boots.
He told me of his time overseas one day in 1994. I convinced my grandparents to allow me to tape them that day. I told them it was so that I could keep an accurate record, to help me get it right for the paper I was writing for school. That was true, though I knew even then I would one day play it for my children.
They went–in WWII they went. They volunteered, they were drafted, but either way they went. The world was a different place then, and our country was different, too. We were proud, we were provoked, and we were pissed. There wasn’t any question in our minds that we were right to do what we did. There were questions eventually–dropping the bombs and building a wall will lead to second guessing–but we were united at the time. Rosy the Riveter. One nation under God.
The day they got to Buchenwald, there were no guards there to meet them. They had heard of the approach of the Americans and fled. They had left the compound–and the prisoners–behind. He spoke of the prisoners, the camp, the crematorium–stories and images we are all familiar with. They didn’t look like people, he said, but ghosts. Thin as a sheet of paper, light enough to float away with the wind. Not so much excited by the arrival of the Americans, but more subdued, shell-shocked, incapable of celebration, in many cases of comprehension. But to see the look on his face, hear the tone of his voice as he spoke…beyond disgust, beyond revulsion, beyond description. It was like watching someone try to rid themselves of something ingested, attempting to regurgitate poison a little too late. It was as if the experience had become a physical part of him, one he couldn’t separate himself from and still survive. I have never heard him speak of it before, and I have never heard him speak of it since.
How? We ask ourselves how, and we believe, truly believe, not now, not here, not us. That was then, it was Germany and they were led by a madman, not us, never us. We’re the good guys, we’re cultured, we’re compassionate, and we’re above the fray, free of base desires and incapable of indifference. We could never turn our backs and pretend we didn’t see the people or hear the screams, like so many German citizens did during the war. We would never stand for the inhumane treatment of human beings at the hands of our government, our military, our police We could never allow genocide or “ethnic cleansing” to take place in today’s world. Kosovo. Rodney King. Guantanamo. Rwanda. Malice Green. Abu Ghraib. Afghanistan.
They were both named Charles.
Charles of the army is with us still. I’m just back from 2 ½ years out of state, so I haven’t seen much of him during that time until this month. Cookies and tootsie rolls for my kids when they come to visit instead of pop tarts and dill pickle slices in a paper cup for my brothers and I when we were young, but he’s still with us, thank God. Sharp, too, nothing loose upstairs, though he’s having a very hard time getting around. His balance isn’t what it should be–I keep fighting the urge to reach out and steady him when he walks. What I notice most, just since I’ve been back, is that his eyes are growing cloudy. I hate to see it, that dimness in those kind eyes. These four weeks have been great, running across town to clear the snow for him before work, just like I used to before relocating a couple years back. Fifteen minutes afterward with a cup of coffee, not too much to say, mostly just sitting together with my grandmother still asleep in the next room. Sitting with him in the house he built with his own hands, content just to know how happy he is that I came by. This may be the last winter I dig out his walks before work, only God can say for sure, but how blessed am I? Thirty-eight years old and three grandparents alive, all of them sharp, with three of my four children already old enough to remember them. I’ve done nothing to deserve this–how could I? How could anyone?
Charles of the navy had his second stroke in the early morning of September 20, 2001, nine days after another unprovoked attack on the US. I never got to discuss that attack with him. My second son (Jake) was born September 14, 2001, by cesarean section. We had been up most of the night before, off to the ER with the newborn after calling the paramedics for the first time in my life. Second day home from the hospital and heading right back. Reflux, the paramedics said, but take him in if you’re nervous. Right. Woke my mother to come over and stay with the two year old (who slept through the whole thing, fire truck, police cars and all). We took him in, were up most of the night, and received instructions to visit our doctor the next day for follow up.
I got the call about 10am, seven hours or so after the stroke, four and a half hours after we got to bed, and went right up to the hospital. I believe he was still aware, pretty sure he squeezed my hand a little when I whispered to him. We turn out big for such things, my family, and they kicked us out of the main waiting room to a separate room down the hall. My relatives told me he was definitely aware of what was going on when he first came in, and that they thought he still was, though he was slipping fast. The doctors didn’t expect him to last out the day, and were just trying to make him comfortable.
I left an hour later to take our newborn to his follow up visit, and all I could think about was how I had intended to take him over to meet his grandparents on that side the day before. All of my grandparents were old enough that they had a tough time getting around, so trips to see new babies at the hospital were pretty much out of the question. We had started out with the other set of grandparents the afternoon before, but felt tired after that and put off getting to both sets that same day. It was eating at me–he so loved to see the little babies, and just the day before he had been fine.
We went to the hospital right from the doctor’s office. There was never a question about our older son, two at the time–he didn’t need to go into the intensive care room, see grandpa hooked up to all the hoses and wires. Talking about grandpa being very sick was enough. But Jake…I asked my wife first, and though we both knew it was a risk, she agreed.
I brought him into the room and waited. There were probably eight family members in there when I walked in, so I waited my turn. One of my aunts was kind enough to move aside for me after a few moments, so I moved up next to the bed and placed Jake’s little hand in the hand of his great-grandfather, then clasped them both in my own. I leaned over close to his ear and spoke as clearly as I could. “Grandpa, this is Scott. I want you to meet your newest great-grandson, Jacob Charles. I know I shouldn’t have brought him in here, but I wanted you to meet him. I’m so sorry I didn’t bring him out to meet you yesterday, grandpa. So very sorry. I wanted you to know that we named him after his grandfathers. I love you, Grandpa.”
I had trouble getting to sleep last night. So I got out of bed and sat down to write, and this came out. I didn’t really write this for you, pondfolk. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a long time, and I wrote it for my kids. And for me–it helps a little to let it out on screen, something I’m sure many of you can relate to. But as this site has inspired me to write again, I thought I’d share it with those of you who might be so inclined as to read it. I hope you don’t mind.