Friday, February 28, 2014

28 February 2010

My Dad on the Wannsee
West Berlin, late-1940s
My father was born in 1928, on the 6th of June.

When he was eleven years old, Germany invaded Poland.


When he was thirteen years old, Japan attacked the Seventh Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

When he was seventeen, he convinced my grandparents to let him drop out of high school and join the Army. Both of his older brothers were already in the Army. Uncle Louis (the oldest of the three boys) was with the Army Air Forces in the Pacific. The next oldest, my Uncle Charlie, was an infantryman with Seventh Army in Europe. He too had dropped out of school to do his duty for his country.

While Germany had surrendered less than a month before, the war was still raging in the Pacific. His two older brothers were serving, he felt he had to get in before it was too late. Over my grandmother's strenuous objections, my Dad enlisted in the Army.

By the time his training was done, the war was over. Japan had surrendered. Nevertheless, Dad wound up on a troopship headed for Europe, specifically Berlin, Germany.

Though the Berlin Wall wouldn't go up until 1961, Berlin was already divided. There were four sectors back then, American, French, British and Soviet. The portion occupied by the Western Allies would eventually be called West Berlin. At the time it was all just Berlin.

Dad had many interesting stories of his interactions with the Soviet occupation troops who would, from time to time, wander into the American Sector of Berlin.

Like the time Dad and one of his buddies had "borrowed" a jeep to go do something. Something which the Army probably frowned on, officially, but in practice turned a blind eye to. At any rate, Dad and his buddy were driving down some Straße, surrounded by rubble mind you, because Berlin looked like this when my Dad was there -


As they came around a corner, there in the middle of the road was a Soviet officer, pistol in hand (aimed at the jeep) with the other hand in the air signaling my Dad and his buddy to stop.

Well of course, they stopped. Then the Soviet jumped into the back of the jeep, waved his pistol in the air and said "Go!"

Go they did.

As they motored through the ruins of Berlin, from time to time the Russian would gesture with his pistol and the jeep would follow that new direction. Eventually they were very close to the Soviet zone, what would be known a few years down the road as East Berlin.

At that point the Russian indicated that the jeep should stop. (I should also note that said Soviet officer was, according to my Dad, completely and totally drunk.)

The inebriated officer of the Soviet Union dismounted from the jeep, turned to the two Americans and (gesturing with his pistol) pointed back the way they had came and said, "Go!" And go they did.

Dad had a lot of great stories from his three years in the Army. Most of them spent in Berlin. I often wondered what Dad did in the Army, technically speaking he was a supply sergeant in the Signal Corps. He and another guy manned the supply room. They had a captain in charge who pretty much believed in "live and let live". He would show up at the supply room only when he needed something. Most of the time he was "elsewhere" as Dad would put it.

When I queried Dad later in life what he meant by "elsewhere" (I was in the Air Force then) he told me that the good captain was shacked up with a Fräulein (young German lady), which was most certainly against Army regulations at the time. (Who knows, that's probably still frowned upon.)

So Dad and the other sergeant in the supply room had a great deal. They also figured that, as both of them weren't really needed there, that one guy could take a few days off from time to time and see the rest of Germany. So they did, with the captain's knowledge, if not his actual blessing.

Well, one time, when it was Dad's turn to play "happy wanderer" their captain was sent home, back to the States. In his place was a brand new second lieutenant.

Dad met the new lieutenant when coming back to the supply room on a Monday after a kleine Reise (little trip) down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bayern (Bavaria). By the way, beautiful countryside he informed me. I've been there, I agreed, breathtakingly gorgeous down that way.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

New Lieutenant: "So sergeant, where the Hell have you been?"

Dad: "Well Sir, it was my turn to be away from the unit."


New Lieutenant: "Your turn?" (Looking at the other supply sergeant.)

Dad: "Uh, yes Sir. My turn."

New Lieutenant: "Did you have a pass?"

Dad: "Uh, no Sir."

New Lieutenant: "Very well. You're dismissed."

That week Dad learned that he was being given the opportunity to make sergeant again. Seems the new lieutenant was a very "by the book" kind of guy and the other sergeant was a low-life prick. The other sergeant denied all knowledge of Dad's whereabouts and denied that they had this little system in place.

So officially Dad had been AWOL (Away Without Official Leave). His fellow sergeant sold him out. So Dad became a private. Again.

Well, Dad did manage to climb back up through the ranks to corporal before he left the Army. But the good old days were definitely over.


Things went downhill from there it seems. From 24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949, the Russians decided that they wanted all of Berlin, not just their half. So they blockaded Berlin. Nobody gets in, nobody gets out.

The Berlin Airlift

In response, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to the people in West Berlin. Aircrews from the United States Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing up to 4700 tons of necessities daily, such as fuel and food, to the Berliners.

By the spring of 1949 the effort was clearly succeeding, and by April the airlift was delivering more cargo than had previously been transported into the city by rail. The success of the Berlin Airlift brought embarrassment to the Soviets who had refused to believe it could make a difference. The blockade was lifted in May 1949 and resulted in the creation of two separate German states. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) split up Berlin. Following the airlift, three airports in the former western zones of the city served as the primary gateways to Germany for another fifty years. - Wikipedia
The West had bigger cojones back then. (I'm sure nowadays the State Department would issue a strongly worded statement and the Obummer would mutter about red lines which shouldn't be crossed.)

Oh well...

Time goes by. Too fast at times.

In late 2009, Dad began to get very sick. We didn't go up to New Hampshire for Christmas that year, instead we went down to Virginia to spend Christmas with our daughters. A decision I've somewhat regretted ever since. But everyone tells me how bad Dad looked. I've seen the photos, Dad looked gaunt and weak. He'd gone from being a fairly robust and healthy 81-year old to a very frail looking old man. Still and all, I sometimes wish I would have been there. Hindsight is ever 20-20.

The year 2010 found me traveling away from home for work. I talked to my Dad a number of times from the hotel while I was on the road. It helped, Dad was always a fount of wisdom and advice. But by early February things were getting much worse.

I could hear the pain in my Dad's voice every time we spoke on the phone. But I always figured it was something he'd fight through. He always had come through in the past.

One week I got the call from my Mom that I should come up to New Hampshire to see Dad. He was in the hospital and things weren't too good. The WSO flew up from Oceana to go to the hospital with me. She'd just learned she was pregnant and wanted to tell her grandfather in person.

Well, Dad was in a medically induced coma. It was a last ditch effort by the medical staff to give his body the opportunity to heal itself. At least that's what they told us.

A week later, I had another call on Sunday afternoon from my Mom. It was four years ago today.

"You need to come up here. They're going to take your father off life support as soon as you get here. There's nothing left."

In agony I drove the four hours to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire. That was perhaps the longest drive of my entire life. I remember it was cold, there was snow on the ground and there was a full moon in the sky. A typical, beautiful New England winter's night.

My brother, The Olde Vermonter, met me in the parking lot of the hospital. I had a last cigarette and we went in.

An hour later, they took my Dad off life support. He regained consciousness for a few moments. He looked around the room, I know he saw his three sons there.

But his last glance was at my Mom. He looked at her, his wife of 57 years. That moment seemed to stretch for an eternity but was probably no more than two seconds.

Then he was gone. My Dad was gone.

I don't care what anyone tells you. The pain never goes away. The sense of loss is always there, hiding, waiting to strike out when you least expect it.

All that really happens is that you learn to deal with the pain. You learn to put the "howling emptiness" into a dark closet of your mind and hope it stays there. Which normally it does, life goes on. We bury our dead, we mourn their loss and then we get on with life.

Until the anniversary of the date arrives again. And you remember.

If you're lucky, you remember the good times. Spent together. The stories he told you when you were a kid. I do. But today, try as I might, I mourn my Dad once again.

And think back to a cold, cold night in February.

20 comments:

  1. I know where you're coming from. I said goodbye to my father a year and a half ago. I know the empty feeling every time I think about things left unsaid and planned trips never taken. You were blessed to have yours for so long, as was I.

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    1. He was a great Dad.

      And you know where I'm coming from, thanks!

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  2. Five years this past November for my Mom. And you're so right, it never does stop hurting. The difference now I find is that the majority of time, when my mind touches on Mom, I can let it linger only a few seconds and then push on with other thoughts. But there's times when it reaches out of nowhere to bite you and other times, particularly for me, lately - weird story, I invested some of Mom's money after she died, it was for five years and it comes due on March 6th, my youngest's birthday and, of course, the day we lost Lex. I think it's because that money is coming due that I have been thinking so much more about her these last few months. I want and need that money. But I don't want it to come due. Because it feels like the last piece of Mom will then be gone.

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    1. Oh I know that feeling so well Michelle. The day we went to the bank to close out bank accounts for the three kids which my grandmother had set up for them. She'd passed a year or so before then and the bank was starting to whine about lack of activity in the accounts. So we cashed out. Hurt it did.

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  3. My sympathies and condolences. I lost my father about 20 years ago and you're right: the pain recedes, sorta, but it never goes away.

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    1. And the respect and love you have for your Dad shines through every time you mention him. Methinks he'd be awfully proud of you Buck. (Especially as you took his advice to stay away from aircraft!)

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  4. My father died in his sleep when he was 64. Biggest regret was we were beginning to form a new relationship after years of near estrangement. Guess what I miss is that opportunity, and for my sons to have been able to grow up knowing him. Ah, well, drive on.

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    1. I know, not much you can do but drive on.

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  5. A lovely remembrance. Condolences to all his loved ones.

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  6. Dad passed away 5 years ago last November. Mom had passed away 7 years before that, so Dad had moved here. Learned more about him and gained a greater respect for him in those 7 years than in the prior 48. The last couple of years, after his fall, as he slowly spiralled away were very tough, but I'd do them again in a heartbeat. Miss them both and no, the pain never goes away. God bless you and your Dad.

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    1. After I retired from the Air Force I spent two months living at my folks place. My Dad was decided to retire then and there. We had a good, long summer together before I moved down to Little Rhody. It was a good time. I'm glad you had that time with your Dad. Thanks Juvat.

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  7. Condolences. Remember all the good things and good times.

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    1. Thanks c w. There were lots of good things AND good times.

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  8. Dad went 3 years ago this Tuesday. I wasn't there, but had been out 3 or 4 times as the cancer burned his out from the inside. We at least had a chance to say what needed to be said.

    I'm sorry for your loss, and think I understand what you went through.

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  9. Replies
    1. Thanks Six. I know you recently suffered a loss too. It's hard sometimes, but we carry on.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)