The old man drank himself to death, finishing the job on my nineteenth birthday.
I was in another city, having left home for good just two months before. I thought I was finally on my own, and now I was on a jet, called back.
He’d been drinking heavily all of my life and most of his own, and he was a loud, obnoxious, scary, threatening drunk. He left school after fifth grade, caroused through his teenage years and become a man just in time for the Great Depression. Watched as the life was drained out of people like him, second- or third-generation Americans, not stockholders, working people who had so little to lose, and lost all of it. I don’t know what he did during those dark years. It might have been then that he turned bitter and hopeless. He may have tried to tell me at one time or another. I don’t remember. If he did, I wasn’t listening. Now I can never find out. From what I know now, he was a bum, in the finest depression-era sense.
But I just don’t know.
On the night I was born, in 1947, he was out. Maybe he was with friends, or maybe everybody was his friend that night. He had a new wife, a new life, a new life on the way, a bundle of joy, impossible burden. Husbands didn’t hang out in delivery rooms. They hung out in waiting rooms, or bars. He would have been the bar type, buying drinks, talking loud, a pocket full of cigars and a belly full of whiskey.
At some point during the 1930’s, he joined the Army Reserve, and that’s what he was doing when his country entered World War 2. He was sent to Europe, with the Signal Corps. The Germans jammed the short-wave radio, so the Signal Corps switched to FM, but it only had a range of 30 miles. Our guys had to lay wire between the radio relay stations, to ensure clear communications. You can’t jam telephone lines.
I heard the story several times, starting when I was about twelve years old. I don’t know if it’s true, or even if it’s possible. He would tell it softly, and it’s a confused narrative, because, of course, he was drunk when he told it. 1944. Two German soldiers, driving some kind of military vehicle, probably an armored car. The war is lost to them. Still, they won’t halt when the American sergeant orders them to, They won’t comply. Maybe they don’t understand, maybe they are scared, they are young and don’t know the protocol of surrender. And maybe the sergeant overreacts. He has been crawling through the mud, laying wire, for six months, he is tired and angry, the war should be over, hell, it is over, why don’t these assholes stop? So he shoots his M-1, which makes it OK for his guys to fire their rifles, too, and in a few seconds the two German soldiers lay dead. It turns out they are boys, barely sixteen. The first time I hear of this, the sergeant has two boys of his own. He weeps, for the boys he killed, for himself, the blood he can’t wash off, for me and my brother and the world we will inherit, the world he has saved for us.
I hated him for a while. Then I pitied him. I’m sorry now. I was young and didn’t know. Some things you’re never old enough to understand. By the time I left, all the hatred and pity were gone. I don’t know if he knew that.
Coming back home on that jet I tried to picture his life. I tried to see what could have made him so angry and fearful. But all I could think of was the electric train, the big Lionel freight that I had found under the tree on my sixth Christmas. The one he had bought for me on the night I was born. The one that he had been hiding for six years, waiting for the right time to give it to his oldest boy, his pride and joy.