My Father’s War

The story I will tell you now has haunted my dreams and waking hours for much of my life. The story itself, as told to me by my father, is only part of what has troubled me. Why my father thought it was okay to tell me of such a tragic event while I was just a child sometimes upset me through the years, although at the time I was too young to understand its true meaning to him or the people involved. More often, it bothered me that my pestering him for a war story had forced him to relive things he wanted to forget.

But, after my own life was almost destroyed by PTSD from my Vietnam experience, the thing that has pained me most is that I never understood his illness until years after his death; I just thought he was weak, something I would not let myself be while he was alive. The reality was this: in the war, he was a life-saving soldier, an unsung hero who did no fighting, but who saw and did too much, more than any man should have to deal with. Upon returning home, he had no one to tell his troubling stories so that he might unburden himself, no counselor to guide him toward recovery, no medicine to help with his anxiety, except self-medicating alcohol that eventually killed him. 

What really took place in that little town in France is a tiny unrecorded speck of history. My father’s memory may have been clouded by his angst or his desire to forget. Over sixty years ago my father told me a story. My own mind has since suffered mightily and my memory has sometimes proven faulty, including a few times when a previous creative effort impersonated an actual memory.

I can only tell you what I remember … or what I think I remember.

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I was born in 1948 in the deep south to poor parents, Robert and Zadie, both children of farmers. My father was a sharecropper. That just meant he farmed land owned by someone else. The landlord took half the proceeds from the crop as rent. On a forty-acre farm that didn’t leave much money for our family. It was long after my father's death that I finally faced up to the fact that I had once lived in poverty.

By the time I was seven I knew something was wrong with my father. I had no idea what it was. He was such a friendly, attentive man and a good father most of the time … but sometimes he just sat on the front porch and said nothing to nobody. It was as though he was in a different world. Some weekends he would sit there for hours.

My father had been in the Army. He served in Europe during World War II. In the first years of my life we didn’t have a television (or indoor plumbing, for that matter) but I knew about war. Although I don’t remember where I learned so much about it, I knew a lot for a little kid and I knew Daddy had gone to war. I may have heard family members discussing it during our weekly trips to the grandparent’s farms. We may have seen war movies at the drive-in or I might have heard about it on a radio show. We listened to the radio a lot back then. Whatever the source of my knowledge, my child-like view made an awful thing seem glamorous.

When we lived on that little sharecropper’s farm, I actually thought we were still fighting the Germans. I would look at the sky over the cotton fields and wonder why I never saw bombers flying overhead and dropping bombs on the enemy. I was always expecting to see soldiers marching down the dirt road to our house. But they never came.

I constantly pestered my father to tell me a war story. I imagined the many battles he fought and won. I wanted to hear about them. Why wouldn’t he tell me stories about what he did in the war?

I asked. I begged. He wouldn’t do it.

My father eventually broke with family tradition and gave up on farming; he got a job in a factory, having realized he could not make a living for his family as a sharecropper. We moved off the farm and only a few miles away to a little house surrounded on three sides by forest. A skinny paved road ran by the house. An open field across that road had once grown cotton and corn; now it grew bushes, scrub trees and weeds, mostly weeds.

The front yard for our new house was covered with a grassless and clean sandy dirt, which Mama faithfully swept smooth every weekend, as her mother had always done back home on the old family farm. With some of the flooring just about rotted through, a large gray-painted front porch sat on the edge of a steep slope. It had one brand-new unpainted step where I often sat with my youthful ponderings. The back yard led down to a creek. Decades of dead leaves from the tall trees cushioned the hard ground. Rocks of various sizes hid bugs, worms and snakes that made a kid’s summer days more interesting.

The house was small, but a mansion compared to the three-room shack on our sharecropper farm. The tin-roofed wooden structure’s white paint was weathered and flaking with age. With the only distraction being the steady drip, drip of rain leaks into pans on the living room floor, I still remember many summer nights when the droning of a heavy rain on that rusted tin roof could calm me and put me to sleep.

The front porch almost touched the ground but the back of the house was on wooden posts that were seven or eight feet high. The house had no underpinning. Under the back of the house was a little storage building to which my father made many mysterious trips.

My father taught me to sing and play guitar. He bought me a child-sized guitar and tuned the strings to an open “E” or something like that. He called the tuning “Hawaiian style.” He gave me an empty bottle of Wintergreen ointment and showed me where to hold it against the frets to make other chords. We often played together out on the front porch as a family. Sometimes Daddy would play and Mama would sing gospel songs she had learned at church or heard on the radio. When they sang together, Mama’s bluegrass voice and Daddy’s mellow country voice blended well in the night air. I would sing along if I knew the words.

I had no idea how special those moments were. I guess I thought everyone’s father would spend hours teaching their sons to sing and play and then everyone would sing together as a family.

Some of my most special memories are of playing and singing old folk and country songs with my father. He taught me how to sing harmony. He called the harmony part a “whisky tenor” and said that the more whiskey you drank the better it sounded. I really didn’t understand what that meant. Looking back, I can remember that my father had a habit of saying things inappropriate for young ears. Mama would scold him and he would laugh. She would smile back at him. He did it just to get a rise out of her; and she knew it; and though she’d never say, she liked it.

One Saturday evening as the sun was going down and after we had played just about everything we knew, I once again asked Daddy to tell me a war story. Mama had already gone back in the house to tend to my baby sister. The setting sun briefly peeked past the clouds and lit up his favorite light blue shirt, then sank behind the trees in the distance. As the light faded, my father’s face became somber.

He thought about it a few moments, put down his guitar and said, “Okay.”

I sat on the porch step filled with anticipation. He pulled from the pocket of his dark gray work pants a can of Prince Albert smoking tobacco, rolling papers, and a book of matches. With much care and skill, he made himself a cigarette, put it to his lips, struck a match, took a long drag and blew out the match with the smoke he exhaled. He smoothly slid the fixings back into his pocket.

His precision had not escaped my young eyes, having watched him do this many times. Every move was well rehearsed, as though meaningful beyond anything I might understand. He flicked the spent match out into the dirt yard and climbed out of his wooden rocking chair with the speed of an old man. His young, gentle face seemed to age as he sat down beside me on the porch step.

I was so excited. I would finally hear about all the incredible things my father did as a soldier. But as his story unfolded I became very disappointed. Instead of a glorious adventure about cannons and planes and killing the enemy, the story he told seemed to have no glory and made little sense to my seven-year-old mind.

He started by telling about driving his ambulance through a town in France right after a big battle. Until that moment I didn’t even know he had been an ambulance driver. He would say a few sentences, fall silent, and turn his face away from me. When he turned back toward me, he would start again but it seemed like he left out a lot of the story.

I learned that his ambulance was filled with wounded GI’s. He remembered how they moaned and cried and called out for their mothers as he loaded them. There were many more wounded than he could carry. He needed to get back to the rear and unload so he could return to the front for more wounded. It was a long muddy drive. He was pretty sure one soldier had already died in the back of the ambulance and others might die back there too if he didn’t hurry.

At the edge of a little town an old woman put up her hands and stepped in front of his ambulance to get him to stop. Her house had been hit by a bomb or artillery shell. My father slammed on the brakes, to the moans of wounded soldiers.

“Please Doctor! My husband is trapped inside the house.” She said in broken English. “He is hurt. Please help us.”

“I’m not a doctor. I’m just an ambulance driver.” My father said to her. “I can’t stop. I don’t have any room in back. I have to get these wounded soldiers back to the field hospital.”

He turned the steering wheel sharply and pulled around her. As he drove away, he looked into his rear-view mirror. Mud from the spinning tires splattered onto her as the old woman fell to her knees in the muddy road behind him.

By this time in the story my father had turned away from me … but he kept on talking, choking on almost every word. He breathed heavily several times, cleared his throat, brushed his rough hand across his cheek and slowly turned his face to me as his anguished voice stumbled through the rest of the story, “She stood there in front of her bombed-out home, her old fingers clasped in front of her. She was begging me to help her; to save her husband’s life. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t help her.” He took another deep breath. “Her old eyes were crying right at me.”

My father abruptly stopped talking and stood up.

I sat there on that unpainted step, head down, trying to understand what had just happened. His shoes crunched the sand as he walked away. I looked up to see him turn and disappear into the shadows. I jumped to my feet to follow him but stopped at the edge of the front yard, straining my eyes in the dim light, trying to see where he went. In a few seconds, I could hear him fumbling with the lock on the storage building under the back of the house.

That was where my father … hid his liquor.