It’s the week of Memorial Day. I won’t complain about being in Pa. because normally I would be here this week any how. It’s become a tradition for me to come visit now and later this week we will visit the graves of some of those past and then on Monday we will have a little family get together for hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad, and other assorted goodies. Several surviving relatives will come to join us so it’s a nice little party. Maybe 8 people or so, a far cry from family reunions past which had nearly 100 show up. No more. Most are gone or moved away so this little picnic is kind of special.
Amongst said relatives who will be joining us is my last living blood uncle. Someone kind of special in my eyes, and the focus of this sure to be award-winning-best-selling-post….someday.
He is 91 now. Born in 1924, he was one of nine siblings, the youngest brother. To look at him, he didn’t seem like much. All of 5’4″, and barely 125 pounds sopping wet. He loved to build things like models and was very close to his family. In 1944, the U.S. Army decided there was enough of him to draft him into service. 3 of his brothers were already serving in Europe. When he left, his mother, my grandmother, cried because of all the brothers, she was afraid he would not return.
He went through basic training ok. We have a picture of him after basic. He is standing there with his big, goofy grin, carrying a backpack easily more than half his weight, with a rifle almost as long as he was tall, slung on his shoulder.
After basic he was shipped off to Europe to fight the Hun. He was placed with the 78th Infantry Division, also known as the Lightning Division. They had already been in quite a few fights with more to come. My uncle arrived right after the Battle of the Bulge. He remembers it being extremely cold when he first arrived.
One night, he and a buddy were stationed in a foxhole along the front lines. About 100 yards in front of them were the German’s. Neither side was interested in doing any shooting. They were all just trying to keep warm. But others had different ideas. As my uncle and his buddy were cozy in their foxhole, a Sherman tank pulled up directly behind them. About the same time a German Panzer pulled up directly across from them on the German side.
Well, tank crews being tank crews, one could not just sit there and look at the other. Both tanks opened up on each other with cannon and machine gun fire. All the while, my uncle and his buddy were huddled just in front of the Sherman so they were catching hell from noise of the cannon and explosions from the Panzer. Sort of like sitting front row at the end of an ACDC concert. The battle lasted quite awhile but miraculously, my uncle and his buddy survived. However, my uncle’s hearing was shot. Something which afflicts him to this day.
Later, the division began to move towards Germany, fighting all the way. One famous battle they, and my uncle participated in was the crossing of the Remagen Bridge. As Germany retreated back across the Rhine, the army destroyed all the bridges to slow the Allies advance. All except one, the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. For ten days the Germans tried to destroy the bridge with everything they had, while the 78th crossed into Germany. My uncle was amongst them, crossing under heavy enemy fire. Once again, he survived without a scratch.
In Germany the fighting was heavy from town to town. My uncle remembers going into the city of Cologne and standing at the cathedral after the bombing. Once, while patrolling in the city, he stepped through a doorway and heard something ping behind him. A German sniper just missed him by inches.
Finally, my uncle’s luck ran out. During a mortar attack he was wounded by shrapnel but not too seriously. He survived the war and was decorated with the Purple Heart and a combat service medal. When he finally returned home and was met at the train by his mother, his dark hair had turned completely white.
Following the war he got married, as many did, had a daughter, and bought a nice little house on a hill not far from the house where he was born. They have lived there ever since. Last month we celebrated their 60th anniversary.
I have nothing but fond memories of my uncle when I was growing up. We would come up to his house and pick cherry’s off his tree. He made homemade birch beer in the fall. When I got older we would go hunting together along with his dad, my grandfather. He loved to fish and tinker around the house. And he never missed a family reunion.
The thing I remember most about him was his gentleness. Not once, in all the years I have known him, did I ever see the man get mad or angry. He had a perpetual smile on his face and never seemed to be bothered by anything. It’s hard to believe he saw combat or fought against other men.
He rarely if ever mentioned the war. Never seemed to want to talk about it until the last ten years. After the last of his brothers passed away, suddenly he wanted to talk about the things which happened to him. Ask him and he will show you a dark spot on his hand. It’s a piece of shrapnel, still embedded under the skin.
As time went on he would show me some of his memento’s from the war. Pictures, medals, and quite proudly too. It was if he felt comfortable enough to talk about what happened and wanted to share his experiences. But the past couple years, things have changed.
He is 91 now and fading fast. His hearing, always a problem has gotten progressively worse. The VA helps with hearing aids but they no longer seem strong enough. He is very quiet around everyone because he can’t hear anymore. He is also showing early signs of dementia. He is very forgetful, repeats himself often, and has trouble even knowing what day it is. He recognizes me most of the time but sometimes he just can’t place me. Up until a month ago, he was still driving, but mercifully, his son in law took his car away, the lease was up, so his driving days are over. It scared me to death because he was an accident waiting to happen.
Physically, he is in pretty good shape for 91. He walks, although slowly, and once in a while understands what someone is talking about. It’s very trying on his wife to deal with this but they are not alone. Three of his sisters live close by, and I’ve been helping out with some badly needed house chores for them. But he is still fading away.
Like everyone else his age around here, every week is another visit to the doctor but it’s all a scam. They test him endlessly for this or whatever and prescribe more drugs. Just let the man live in peace I say. He eats pretty good, and still can function. But he is fading away.
At some point he will not be able to fend for himself. His wife, who is the same age is way more better physically, but you can tell it is taking it’s toll on her. There is only so much we can all do to try and make him comfortable. It’s sad to watch him regress but it’s part of life.
I’ll miss my uncle when he is gone. To everyone he was just another veteran who survived the war, got married, and led a good life. But in my eyes, he was a hero and nothing will take it away. To go through what he did, and live though it was amazing. And to live such a long and peaceful life afterward was incredible.
On Monday we will get together once again. We’ll eat hotdogs (mine with peanut butter of course), and talk about all sorts of things. My uncle will be there and hopefully understand some of what’s going on. We’ll all show patience with him when he repeats himself but it’s ok. At least he is still here. Someday he will fade away and be gone, so I enjoy whatever time I have left with him. At least for one more Memorial Day.