|Whitie in the days of the "brown shoe" Army.|
The box was lined with wine red satin now sullied and faded with age and as you lifted the little latch and opened the top, it emitted a smell that was at once musty and metallic. Inside were, mostly, coins: German coins, French coins, Belgian coins, British coins, Italian coins of World War II vintage. But mixed in with the coins were a few other things as well: a long forgotten US Army Good Conduct medal and ribbon, a set of dog tags bearing my father’s name, serial number and other vital information—next of kin, an address to which to send personal effects should that have become necessary, etc., since bodies were usually not shipped home during World War II, but were buried by Quartermaster Grave Registration Companies in designated battleground cemeteries when hostile fire was finally suppressed—and several oval-shaped black metal Nazi insignias with the swastikas of the Third Reich in relief on them. These, I presumed, had been taken from German uniforms, which begged the question of whether the former wearers had been dead when my father procured the badges, and if so, how they had gotten that way. The only other items in there were two rings, one silver, the other a bronze alloy of some kind. The silver one was the larger of the two and had the insignia of the Seventh Army engraved on it (an A in the form of a stile with seven steps on each side), and the other one was engraved with the name Mae (my mother’s middle name and the one my father called her by when they were first going together). The rings, my father told us, were made for him by a French Algerian blacksmith with whom my father worked when he was first sent overseas as a soldier during World War II. The skilled artisan, who was working for the Allies repairing damaged vehicles, had beaten and molded both from English coins.
|One was a Nazi parade-knife-bayonet|
There was something else, however, something more exciting, but way
higher up in the closet where I wasn’t supposed to reach, and I had been
specifically forbidden to do so: namely, two bayonets, one German and the other
Italian. These, I was only allowed to see if my father agreed to show them to
me, which he seldom did. But sometimes when I was left alone in the house, when
my father was at work, my sister off with friends, my mother off shopping, and
my little brother in her custody, I would break the rules, climb up on a chair
and get those awful blades down for a private look at them. Both were stowed in
blackened steel scabbards, but there the resemblance ended. The German one was
relatively short with a typically black hilt. It was not the longer Nazi battlefield
bayonet, but what was known as a parade knife-bayonet, and was about the size
of a standard hunting knife, but was dual-edged and came to a razor-sharp point,
obviously made for thrusting and gutting. The sound of the well-tempered steel
sliding from the metal scabbard was chilling and once, the shiny stainless
blade, still smelling of aging gun oil, was out, I couldn’t resist practicing a
few thrusts and parries with it in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’
bedroom. The other bayonet, however, was too awesome to mess with. Heavy as a
club and more than twice the length of the German parade knife, its hilt was of
waxed hardwood and its blade and tip, dangerously keen. This was a weapon made for
running an enemy through in close-quarter combat. It was for storming trenches
and last ditch hand to hand fighting, and far too scary to do more than slide
it carefully from the scabbard, hear the ring of the blade as it broke free and
then slide it back in, before putting both blades carefully back, exactly where I had found them.
|The other was too awesome to mess with.|
This was the secret world of Sergeant Whitie, the only visible evidence we had of it, like broken artifacts exhumed by an archeologist, scattered remnants of a jigsaw puzzle of whose full picture one could now only catch fleeting glimpses, a world in which our father lived alone and that he shared with no one. This was a place where Whitie lived without family, a place to which we, his offspring, had no access, a world in which we probably wouldn’t have known him had we bumped into him in our worst nightmares. And, I suspect it was a world even our mother had no real knowledge of, or cared to have.
Back then the United States turned out a different class of men. They were taught to hide their sensitivity, to bury pain and sadness deep inside. If it surfaced, it signified instability, unhealthy weakness, insanity. You lived with your experiences. You didn’t let them dominate you and you certainly didn’t share them. You did your duty and tried to come back alive, and if you did, you immediately got on with new duties as a civilian and let the past take care of the past. If the war ended and you came back alive, you had done your duty, been luckier than a lot of other guys, and should sleep well. Anything you had to do in order to achieve that was between you, your comrades and the enemy and there was a kind of omerta pact that went with this: with your buddies, it was a tacit and fraternal understanding, while in the case of the enemy, dead men told no tales. If you had come home, they probably hadn’t.
There was a time when I thought I knew something about Sgt. Whitie, when I actually thought the few fragmented bits and pieces he would talk about were the whole story. But what I knew, I would later realize, was the little packet of anecdotes he had mentally anthologized as his “war experiences” for whenever anybody who hadn’t been there asked him about those four formative years of his life, when, like so many men of his generation, he went from being a mere boy to being a hardened combat veteran formed in the worst war in history.
His older brother Red had joined the Navy before the United States ever entered the war. Whitie admired Red and, at the same time, always competed, as a boy, to live up to or surpass the standards of toughness and courage his big brother set. And they were no easy standards to match. So at age nineteen, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt declared the United States at war, Whitie was among some of the first boys to try and enlist. But the thick corrective lenses he had worn from a very young age turned out to be more of an obstacle than he ever could have imagined. He was, he felt, more than able-bodied, but when he tried to get into the Marines he was rejected out of hand because of his sight (something that left him with a contemptuous loathing of Marines ever after). The same thing happened when he sought Navy recruitment. Finally, he tried the Army, where he was declared 4-F (unfit for enlisted armed service). Anger over this stuck with him all his life and whenever any wise guy dared make some reference to his glasses—“Hey, where’d ya get the specs, Coca-Cola?” or, “What’re you lookin’ at four-eyes?”, etc.—Whitie’s answer was always the same: Slowly removing his spectacles, he’d say, “I only wear these for seein’, and I won’t have to see much to whip your ass.”
|Her first name was Reba, but he called her Mae.|
So anyhow, resigned to his fate, young Whitie decided that if he wasn’t going to be permitted to join this war, then he could at least take advantage of the growing shortage of male labor in vital wartime industries in his native Ohio. Long story short, after a brief time doing grunt work in the industrial press rooms of Goodyear and Westinghouse, this last corporation felt he was too smart to waste and made him a factory-floor inspector. Now, with this good job and prospects for advancement, he was even working up the courage to ask his girl, Reba Mae, to marry him. But just when he was about to, he received a draft notice from the United States Army!
The rejection he had felt when he was turned down by all of the branches of service had been a terrible blow, but this turn of events added insult to injury: He hadn’t been “good enough” to join, but now the government was going to force him to go.
Whitie was incensed, and the feeling wasn’t quick to go away. He held that grudge all through the early part of his service and proved a rebellious handful for his first superiors. A natural sportsman who was quick, graceful and light, the physical training involved in basic combat instruction was easy enough for him and even with his poor eyesight, he was able to qualify at the rifle range. But his disciplinary problems exasperated his trainers. He was defiant and angry most of the time and often flatly refused to carry out orders that he considered “chickenshit”. To try and instill some kind of military discipline in him, the drill instructors put him on kitchen police or guard duty as often as they could, and once he was through with his basic training, they assigned him to the sergeant in charge of the officers’ mess as a kind of all-purpose busboy and waiter. Whitie reluctantly did the job for only a brief time before he’d had enough. Back in the kitchen with the mess sergeant and his crew one evening, the bell that signaled that the officers wanted something jangled once, twice, three times without Whitie’s moving a muscle. The mess sergeant barked, “Hey you! Can’t you hear the damn bell? Get your ass up there! The captain’s ringin’ for ya!”
“Ya wanna know what they want?” Whitie asked. “Then go ask ‘em yourself ya suckass!”
The mess sergeant was dumbfounded. Who could be so stupid? This crazy white-headed idiot was on his way to a court martial for sure! So the sergeant marched up the stairs to the officers’ mess to tell the company commander what had happened. Shortly, the commander, a Captain Anderson, came down to the kitchen. Whitie figured he was going to be placed under arrest and marched to the stockade. Funny thing was, by this point, he didn’t really give a damn.
Instead, however, Captain Anderson said, “Follow me, son,” and led him outside behind the officers’ mess. Whitie was ready for anything. If Anderson threw a punch at him, he didn’t care one way or the other. He was swinging back, even if it meant getting court martialed for striking an officer. But once they were outside, in the cool evening air, the officer took a pack of Luckies out of his tunic pocket, said, “At ease, son,” offered a cigarette to Whitie and took one himself, then offered the private the flame from his Zippo before lighting his own smoke. Like Whitie, Captain Anderson wasn’t a career soldier. Back in the world, he had been a high school history teacher. He was an “old man”, in his thirties. He had joined up early, gone to officers candidate school and his age, wisdom and education, as well as a dearth of qualified company grade officers because of the massive call-up, meant that he had been able to advance quickly on his own merit from second lieutenant to first and from first lieutenant to captain and company commander. He was good with men and the Army knew it. He seemed to want to give the same kind of chance to this obviously angry young man.
“What seems to be the trouble son?” Captain Anderson asked, and his manner was so laid back and fatherly that Whitie opened up and told him everything, how he had been rejected by all of the services, how bad that had made him feel, how he’d gotten a good job where he felt like he was worthwhile, how he had planned on proposing to his girlfriend and how he had then been drafted. He told the captain how angry that had made him. He said he felt like a leper—not good enough to enlist but fine to be just another body. He felt as if his patriotic verve in volunteering to fight for his country had been rejected, felt, in fact, like an outcast, just because he wore glasses. He was pissed off and unwilling to take any more chickenshit from anybody.
“So tell me, son, what would you like to do?”
“Something worthwhile, learn a skill, mean something, as long as I’m here,” he said with the passion of youth.
“Well, you’re still going to have to obey orders, son,” the captain said, “but you seem like a smart lad, and you’ve sure got moxie, I’ll give you that. So don’t worry, we’re going to see if we can’t maybe find you something more interesting to do.”
To be continued...