My father didn’t like telling war stories. He’d accumulated fistfuls of medals over there, and he kept them stashed in an anonymous little plush case at the back of his closet, where they went unseen for decades. That was all part of the past, and he had no use for the past. He used to wave off any question I asked about the world before I was born, irritatedly dismissing it as if all of that were self-evidently too shabby and quaint to interest a modern kid like me. “It was a long time ago,” he’d always tell me, which was as much as to say, “It’s meaningless now.”
This attitude reminded me of a story my American dad told me.
Don’t forget: I have three fathers. I’ve talked about my biological father, Philip Ochieng, ad infinitum. My second father was my great-uncle John Simpkins, Jr. (1920-2000). He served in the Second World War and the evidence of it hangs on my living room wall.
My third father, Johnny Dorn, is the youngest of the three and a Vietnam-era vet. I refer to him as my American father. The story of his father’s stint in WWII is the topic.
Grandpa died in 2006 and his death, as is not unusual, was preceded by a descent in health; his children had to help take care of him. (Grandma died years before him.) Dad is the eldest of his siblings, so it was natural that a lot of the responsibility fell on him and he was happy to do it.
Grandpa was a right and proper man who never came out of his bedroom or the bathroom in a state of undress—not even in just a t-shirt and shorts. None of his children or grandchildren had ever seen him any other way until my dad had to see to his hygienic needs during the decline.
So it was that when Dad first had to help Grandpa bathe, he discovered that his father had deep marks in his upper torso near a shoulder. Bullet wounds. He asked his dad how they came to be.
It turns out that Grandpa had briefly been a POW while assigned in France. I’m not sure what Grandpa’s task was. (Remember, this was before the desegregation of the military; most black Americans who served were cooks, stewards, and the like. But, not all. After the war, Grandpa went on to join the USAF—created in 1947– and retired as a supply NCO.)
Members of the French Resistance helped him escape, which explained Grandpa’s lifelong love for the French.
Grandpa had never told that story before.
I haven’t tried to verify the story and I don’t feel the need to. I just thought that the holding-back of it was emblematic of how men who have truly been in breakdown-of-civilization situations handle visions of Hell afterward. They forget about it, move on, and live. And that is exactly what my grandfather did.
(Thanks to Gerard Vanderleun)
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. (Her older blog is located here.) Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2012. Her second novel tentatively titled Arlen’s Harem, will be done on April 2017! Follow her on Twitter and on Gab.ai.
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