By KATHY BAUMGARTEN
Maybe it was just a coincidence that my father bought a house near WWII veterans like himself; maybe there were so many of them that it couldn’t be avoided. However, none of that mattered to me as a child. What counted was the subtle influence those men had; it changed my life and I didn’t even know it.
Like most children, I thought only the neighborhood mothers mattered as they were the only people around all day. I never gave much thought to their husbands who walked out alone to their cars each day and disappeared to work at a wide variety of post-war occupations. Today, as a veteran myself, I can appreciate the fact that these men hadn’t even served together, and that their experience of war differed vastly. It just makes it all the more wonderful that they all came together for me back then.
We were closest to two other families, so I knew that Alice’s husband had been an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge and that Mary’s husband served as a radioman. My own father had been a lineman. The only thing they had in common was kissing their loved ones goodbye. Like all soldiers, they expected bad food and rough seas but hadn’t expected to trade their naïve youth for a world-weary look that would take a long time to wear off, if ever. None of us kids ever considered that the “sweet dreams” their mothers had tucked them in at night with had been replaced with shell-shock and images that haunted their sleep. Still, they rejoiced upon their homecomings and made plans for the future. Infantryman labored in a factory sweeping floors, took night classes and moved up. Radioman used his GI Bill to earn a medical degree, and my dad, well, he sold hardware.
These men worked, barbecued, upgraded their bathrooms, bought cars and cut their lawns. They found time to spawn a neighborhood full of little miracles that ran down sidewalks to greet them as they walked in slow paces back up to their front doors every night, hoping for dinner. There came a day when my dad’s steps got too slow and he went away to the VA hospital. While our mother stayed there by his side, his mother watched over us, or so we thought. We didn’t know the whole neighborhood had been quietly placed on high alert.
Babysitting jobs were offered to my sister; the doctor and his teeming brood needed it the most. One night, however, she felt sick and he offered to take a look at her before she walked home. It turned out that it was her appendix. He rushed her into surgery in the nick of time, but that wasn’t the only miracle that night. My mother never got a bill from him for that surgery, and that was lucky. Soon, her Bill, our father, came into his rest and then the woes under our roof really began. Mother’s grief was paralyzing; it was hard to know how to help. The factory man, as commander of his own small troop, sent his wife on this sacred mission.
“You’ve got your little girls…you gotta pull yourself together,” she coaxed gently. After more tears, together they reverently took Dad’s suits off their heavy wooden hangers and took his hat off the shelf; out of sight and out of mind. Then, delicately, she helped push other things into their place to squelch the echo of fifteen years of marriage disappearing. Later, still watching our roof, her husband noticed it was looking bad and charged us next to nothing to replace it. When it was still hard for us to pay, he accepted the extra wheelbarrow Dad had left behind as payment, pushing it up the road to mix cement for his own sidewalk. In that way, Dad was there to help his family for having helped us.
As I recently clutched my first grandchild in my arms, I remembered my father and that band of soldiers that helped to watch over their fallen brother’s family. In no small part they had preserved me for this day. While there is nothing good about war, there was something of greatness that had come into those men who began as young brothers and became fathers. Theirs was a soulful camaraderie which, forged in suffering, stretched and energized their souls into simple actions which have blessed me all these years. Someday I will tell this young man about his grandfather and his comrades; I will tell him how priceless the gift is that is made from blood and tears.