When we were younger, we would ask Papa about "the War." He never elaborated on the heavy stuff. He told us silly stories about (and forgive me because I was a child and I do not remember the exact location) peeing in troughs which were set up in the streets in Europe as urinals. "Can you imagine peeing in the street with pretty women walking by?" He would ask us.
I must have been about 8 or 9 years old when he showed us his army trunk in the attic; and I asked bluntly, "Did you ever kill anyone?" He did not answer. But, tears welled in his eyes and I could see his throat tighten. He composed himself and changed the subject. I was afraid to ask him anything else because I did not want to hurt him or to stir up difficult memories.
It was not until the onset of Alzheimer's that he started to let more of the story unfold to my mother who then recounted it to us. H chose my Papa's army hat, part of his dress uniform, to feature in his Social Studies Archives project in September. It was then that I learned that my Papa was in the 184th Blackhawk division of the United States Army. He had fought in both WWII and the Pacific War. He was a scout in Germany. He said that the scouts were sent ahead of the rest of the division to seek out the enemy's location. He maintained that the scouts were never shot at because the Germans did not want to reveal their location to the rest of the army too soon. My Papa was in Germany when Hitler's prisoners of war were released. He was later sent to the Philippines during the Pacific War to guard the prisoners of war there. When he was stationed there, he found his brother, Chuck, whom he did not even know was also stationed on the island as a ship repairman for the Navy. Since his memory is stuck in certain places because of the Alzheimer's, it is a story that runs on an endless loop, when we visit with him. He finds great amusement from it.
My Papa is an exquisitely sensitive man. He has always been the quintessential gentleman. I can not imagine how anyone manages to maintain such goodness and civility while carrying the gravity of what he experienced when he was such a young man. He was a remarkable patriarch- balancing discipline, guidance, culture, intellect, love, forgiveness and faith. A once great conversationalist, Alzheimer's has made this raconteur quiet. My aunt worries that he is too quiet. The alternative is that he would be ravaged by madness (as my Nana was in her last year) or dead. And, for Christ's sake he is 85 years old. The man bore the brunt of my Nana's lashing out when she became confused, paranoid and irrational in the throes of her Alzheimer's; he lost his Honey Bunny (my Nana) in February; broke his pelvis dancing with my Aunt at her retirement party in June; and was abruptly moved from his family home to an assisted living center in July. And when he is brought to visit with us, he still manages to wonder over his great grandchildren and see the beauty in all people. I believe he deserves the right to be quiet.
Of course, I am grateful for his years of service to our country. But more than that I am grateful for his years of dedication to this family.