Memorial Day hero was right in front of me - First published in the Chicago Sun-Times
September 10, 2018
I had known a lot about my stepfather, George, I thought. That he was a kind man, that he loved my mother with the kind of deep and abiding devotion that the schmaltziest screenwriter would dismiss as corny.
I knew that he was a scientist, an aerospace engineer who worked at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, that he helped create a special chair for Skylab there, a device that helped astronauts combat space sickness on America's inaugural space station.
I knew that he was lanky and awkward, with a professor's beard, and that his idea of high fashion was a lime green leisure suit--with yellow shoes; I knew that when I was a teenager, I felt embarrassed around him sometimes, particularly when he'd sit in the stands at my basketball games with his legs crossed, pipe clamped between his teeth, wearing a cravat of all things, clapping at all the wrong times. I knew that he came to every game and that I wished he wouldn't.
I also knew, vaguely, that he had served in World War II. The subject would come up once in a while, usually around Memorial Day, and he would brush it off, as if it wasn't really worth talking about. It wasn't until many years later that I learned how untrue that was and how little I knew about the man clapping in the stands.
It was a couple of years ago when I casually asked my mother about George's time overseas. Her reaction surprised me. She teared up and pulled out an old crumbling photo album filled with fragile sheaves of sepia pictures. I flipped open the cover, and there was George--a mechanic in a flyboy leather jacket with the bill of his cap flipped up; I instinctively smiled. He wore grease-smudged overalls and dirty black boots and smoked a pipe. Ernie Pyle couldn't have cut a more dashing figure. He looked like a young David Niven.
In a reverent voice, my mom began to tell me the story: From 1943 to 1944, George had been a mechanic who rebuilt American planes from the parts of aircraft downed near enemy lines. He wasn't just the mechanic, though. He was one of the ones who did the salvaging.
"They risked life and limb," my mom told me of George's unit. "When a plane was shot down, they went out and brought the parts back to their little base. The B-17s in particular came in shot to pieces. They patched them up and sent them back out there, and they had to patch them up good so that they would hold together."
It was the perfect job for George. Back in his hometown of Tabor, Iowa, his father had been a mechanic, fixing up combines and tractors, and George had picked up enough know-how to take apart and put back together most anything. Being under fire was scary, but he had grown used to it. And when another plane roared off, given new life by his own hands, he was proud.
But just as he had settled into a routine, George was ordered away. It was December 1944, and he was to join a half million other soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most dramatic and large-scale conflicts of the war.
One of his first duties was to take the short-handled shovel they gave him and dig a trench. Not long after, during a fierce fight, hot slivers of shrapnel whistled into the ditch. His buddy was killed, and metal sliced into George's chest.
"They found him in the foxhole full of mud and water, bleeding, two days later," my mom said. Seventeen at the time, he spent the next four years in and out of hospitals. It was 1948 before he finally returned home to Tabor. The wound he suffered carved a scar that ran around the middle of his chest, around his ribs and up his back. My mom knew only because she saw it the first time he took off his shirt. With full eyes, she touched the jagged stripe of flesh and asked, "What happened?"
"He just said, 'Oh, they had to operate on me after the war.'" She only found out the entire story years later, over coffee with George's sister Freda.
I listened, as my mom told me these things, in "shock and awe," to borrow the recent phrase. Dad? My dad? Who had been in my life since I was 5? Who wore those horn-rimmed NASA glasses and puffed on the pipe? "He was quite the man, my George," my mom said. "He didn't look like much, but that little body had a spirit in it that was unbelievable.
"He used to tell me that the physical part of someone was just a house and the eyes were the windows to the house. And he told me, 'When I look into your windows, I see who you really are.' That was my George."
It's a shame that so few people knew, she said. Even until his death in 1978 from lung cancer, cancer that grew from the scar tissue of his wound so long ago, he rarely spoke about it. "People like George die every day, and nobody knows. A whole lot of people died for our country, and people don't know the story, what bravery they had to go through. They just die, and they're put under the crosses and forgotten. I pray that people will know what it means."
My reminder comes in the form of a promise. My mom said one day she will send me the Silver Star George won during the war, the one she keeps in a box marked "George's stuff." She also promised to give me his Purple Heart, if she can get it from Freda. I might even get the short-handled shovel he used to dig that trench. But not just now. Right now, my mom uses it, to dig in her flower garden.
I'd always seen that shovel, leaning in a corner of the garage.