For My Late Father On Memorial Day (1924--2011)
My dad, along with tens of thousands of other young G.I.s hunkered down in frozen forests in December 1944, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge, was sent desert boots by mistake. The boots intended for them—the warm, sturdy ones, were sent to North Africa.
The error resulted in trench foot, just short of gangrene, a good thing, too, because the Nazis overran my dad's syncopatingly-numb-and-exquisitely-pain-riddled position not more than half a month after he and the others with barely any feeling in their feet had been evacuated.
Trench foot spared his life and gave me mine.
In England, German POWs were assigned to carry injured Americans on cots onto transport ships bound for Boston hospitals. One such German, reading my dad's name on a cot tag, smacked one of my dad's aching, bulbous, and discolored feet as hard as he could. "Juden," he spat. My dad saw stars and gritted his teeth, trying hard not to grant the Nazi pleasure.
Dad recuperated and returned home to Philadelphia and all his life his nearly hairless feet and calves weren’t quite right. He was a gratefully lucky man to the last.
Dad never had a sense that he was a victim of the Germans, of history, of anything. He served proudly in the effort to deny Nazis victory. He knew that the nearly half a million American deaths were necessary and meaningful, however regrettable.
In my career as a teacher, I became aware of what time and distance do to the young people who neither lived through that war nor grew up in the homes of former soldiers. Many of my students—most of them bright, private school children—had no real sense that the Allies were losing the war for four of its five years. They knew the bookends were September 1939, early August 1945, but their emotional sense (until I got hold of them) was that Pearl Harbor was very bad but somehow, soon after, we turned it around and won. Maybe that's what winning does to future generations. It's sad, because it minimizes those sent home with trench foot from the Ardennes, the ones blown to bits at Iwo Jima.
To my dad and to all who served, including the well more than a thousand Second War American G.I.s who die now each day, I want to say “Thank you,” however inadequate. I'm grateful to you, Dad, and to all of your comrades who served in that war, those you knew and those you never knew, those who died and those who lived, so that we could be here to protect what you saved.
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