The story I told at tonight's Monti Story Slam on the subject of "The First Time..."
This is about the first time I heard my father's life story. He was a stern man, as a kid I didn't understand him. Why did he mock us for being soft suburbanites when he was the one who planted us in the suburbs? If we were uppity it was: "My dad would have taken down my britches and tanned me for that!" If we were barefoot it was: "When we were kids they took our shoes away in the spring and didn't give them back till fall, so you're going to wear yours, damnit!" He found the things we cared about -- foolish.
My dad was Pennsylvania Dutch. His austere Lutheran ancestors settled York county in the middle of the 1700s and never left. He grew up in an 18th century farmhouse with a hex sign on the barn. My grandmother spoke only Pennsylvania Dutch until she was taken out of school in fourth grade to roll cigars at the "English" tobacco factory.
Why didn't my dad ever ask how things were going for us? Because farming folks don't intrude on your personal space. If you're well enough to do your work, you're fine, and if you aren't, for instance if like two of my Peppler foremothers you spend most of your adult life in an asylum, they say you're poorly and don't inquire further.
So my dad never told me anything about his life until 1999, the year he was dying of leukemia. Out of the blue he called one day - astonishing, he never called me! and he asked for help writing down his memories, he'd gone blind from the cancer and couldn't do it alone. I was so excited, I grabbed my cassette recorder, jumped in the car, and drove 11 hours straight.
His story opens with descriptions of the family farm, which fields were fertile and which were rocky and how to plough a hillside so the topsoil stays where it belongs, how they butchered hogs and dried black walnuts in the attic, how when he was six for the first time he walked the two miles through the woods and across fields to the one room schoolhouse (which is still there in that cornfield, King's School).
There was so much death in his story! He didn't even mention his little sister Pauline who died at six of polio, but he gleefully recalled his the 5 cent bounty his grandfather paied for every rat killed in his barn. My dad plugged most of the rat escape routes and rigged up old license plates above the others so they'd come slamming down over the remaining holes all at once and he and his dog could wade in among the trapped rats, he clubbed them to death while his dog shook and crunched them by the dozen. When he was older, policing a barn too big for that system, he'd sit in the dark by the light switch, listening for rats' rustling, then quickly turn on the light and shoot any rats that had poked their heads above ground, then shoot others as they fled, then turn out the light and wait again. When the escape tunnels were clogged with corpses he hooked the dead rats out of their tunnels and dumped them in his collection barrel.
He shot and skinned groundhogs, muskrats, possums, foxes, weasels, and skunks: back then in the Depression the pelts fetched welcome cash. He shot rabbits and squirrels and his mom skinned them, dressed them, and turned them into stew.
All that killing! A natural segue to his getting drafted 2 weeks after his 18th birthday. He crossed the Atlantic on the USS America with 9,999 other troops. Cots were stacked 12-high in the hold, there was vomit everywhere, especially on the unfortunate guys in the bottom bunks. He won a lot of money playing cards.
They landed and commenced walking across Europe; even before reaching his unit he'd already been fired on and a good friend from training "took one in the throat." His division, the Eighth Infantry, "relieved Bastogne, crossed the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine and walked deep into Germany" through that muddy, snowy winter when they could rarely take off any of their clothes at all.
"His day," April 3 1945, began when he and another scout were sent over a hill to check out the village below. Turns out they were expected and so this time THEY were the rats, as they crested the hill they were both shot. The other scout was killed instantly, my dad fell to the ground in the middle of what became the battlefield. A “hot fire fight” went on for hours while my 18-year-old father lay on the field, stung by bits of the mortars falling around him, pressing his torn up face, blood gushing everywhere. He "accepted the fact that it was over and got a very calm feeling, but imagined the sadness back home."
Three or four hours later he was pulled to safety and taken by litter to a field hospital. The bullet had gone in one cheek and out the other, shattering his jaw and blowing out many teeth. His jaw was wired shut for six months. He concluded this section of the memoir with a newspaper his parents brought him when he was finally well enough to be flown to a stateside hospital. The headline read: "Army Says Not Sending 18 Year Olds Overseas."
My dad died not long after finishing this memoir, I'm so grateful he shared it in time. I thought about often when my own son was 18. No wonder dad couldn't bring himself to care about the things that mattered to the kids he raised in peacetime suburbia, no wonder he thought our concerns were foolish. After all, as the prayerbook reminds us, "things which are foolish in comparison to death are foolish in and of themselves."