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War Stories

I have a difficult relationship with warfare. 

When I watch war movies or series, I rarely think of glory – rather, I find myself saying, “What a waste.” What a waste of life and promise thousands upon thousands of fallen soldiers, civilians, and animals represent.  What a waste when homes, monuments, and irreplaceable works of art are destroyed.  I wonder what could make anyone want war, or want to participate in one.  I am definitely more a lover than a fighter.

On the other hand, I fully realize that without at least one war, I probably wouldn’t be here today.  If World War II hadn’t happened, and Hitler and the Nazi party had been allowed to just take places over and exterminate human beings unchecked, if the Allies had not liberated Auschwitz, my paternal grandfather would not have gone on to have children.

Veterans Day has thus always been a complex holiday in my mind.  It’s hard to know how to celebrate or commemorate, and yet, while I wish we could just all come to our senses and realize that disease and accidents kill enough people already, and we don’t need to add any other cause of death to the world – I do try to always remember to be grateful to those who made it possible for me to be here today. 

When I talk about my family and its experience with war, I always think of my paternal grandfather’s unspeakably awful time in concentration camps.  But just like my own opinion of combat, there’s another side to my bloodline: my mother’s father fought in World War II, and was awarded two purple hearts.

Why don’t I think as much about this grandfather?   By the time I was old enough to really register his presence, he had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  For me, he was a gentle giant, smiling along, occasionally saying things that didn’t always make sense.  My grandmother cared for him, and her snappy personality made him even less noticeable.  And yet, there was a strength in his presence.  He seemed monumental to me.  I remember one night when we were on vacation with my grandparents, he wandered out of his and my grandmother’s adjoining room, and passed the bed where my sister and I slept.  His heavy, awkward footsteps and towering height made him Frankenstein-like.

I’m glad that there have always been the stories my mom, aunts, and uncle have told about him.  He seemed like a no-nonsense guy, so those impressions of force that I had of him weren’t totally wrong.  But at the same time, he also had a sense of humor.  Still, his life hadn’t been easy. He’d lost his own father at 17, and had had to go to work. When World War II broke out, he entered the US Army.

My mother’s family isn’t a very warlike one, either.  That’s probably why my grandfather’s military career, which must have been pretty admirable, considering the medals he received, isn’t really a topic that often comes up when we’re together.  But we do have a few cherished war stories that are drawn out now and then like delicate family heirlooms. 

Last night, I was thinking about the meatballs I make, and as always that led me to think of the generations of my Italian family who came before me.  I found myself especially focusing on my grandfather, and what these meatballs and other meals like them must have meant to him – and what their significance ultimately seemed to say about him and the War.  And then I thought of how I could in my own small way honor the memory of a man who I never truly knew, and also honor so many other soldiers, victims, and survivors of all wars.

So, here are my family’s war stories.

The one that makes my mom most proud is how, when my grandfather and some other troops were being taken to a POW camp, the Germans found out that my grandfather’s father was Italian.  Because he was officially part of a country with which they were allied, a German commander told him he could be released from the prison and sent to fight for Italy.  My grandfather boldly stared at the soldier and refused, saying “I’m American.”  For this, he was beaten, and spent a long, hard time in the camp.

Here is another war story, full of holes and missing fragments, like a moth-eaten old coat: My grandfather and his friends managed to escape the prison camp by somehow obtaining bicycles and riding away into the French countryside.

The war story my aunts and uncle most frequently tell about my grandfather, is this one: At some point before being captured, probably months or even years before, my grandfather and another private were in a ditch during a shoot-out with German troops.  The tension mounted as bullets flew around them, and suddenly, the other man started to panic.  “I can’t stay in this spot,” he said to my grandfather, “It doesn’t feel right.”  My grandfather agreed to switch places with him.  Cautiously they did so, keeping low to the ground. When they’d gotten settled, my grandfather turned to the other man to see if he felt any better.  And just as he did, a bullet whizzed through the air, right through the man’s head.  If my grandfather hadn’t agreed to change places, he would have been the one who died.

I don’t know how he reacted to the sight of his friend’s shooting and death. Nor do I know how he reacted to any of the other atrocities he saw.  That’s another of the horrors of war, of course, what you keep inside, what you’ve witnessed and maybe will never forget.  And then again, there are many people who live through such things and seem to come out relatively unscathed.  I couldn’t ask my grandfather how he felt. 

I do know this, however, and it’s probably my favorite war story about him (and maybe about anyone):  After he and his fellow POW camp escapees managed to get to a US base, my grandfather was sent home.  He had lost a dangerous amount of weight, and bad food and water had destroyed his digestive system.  Doctors told him that for the rest of his days he’d have to eat a bland diet or risk having serious medical problems.  My grandfather refused to listen, and spent the remainder of his years happily eating my grandmother’s flavorful Italian cooking.

What I love about this war story is that it’s the ultimate defiance.  It’s not a battle in a war, it’s a battle against war, against what it can do to people.  Whereas my other grandfather was forever shattered by his experience in the Nazi death camps, whereas my ex-stepfather fell into drug and alcohol abuse from his experiences in Vietnam, my maternal grandfather refused to let war completely haunt him.  He returned home and fought instead for what was important: good food, and, in his decades-long career as a fireman, life itself. 

I’ll probably never understand the call to fight, and I don’t think I want to.  But I do wish this for all people who’ve ever felt it or been forced to: that they return home to a better life, and make war run scared from them, instead of living forever in its shadow.