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If you could hear, at every jolt, the
"Omaha," he said. He said it in a loving kind of way, like a man who might suddenly remember the name of an old friend.
"What do you mean, Omaha?" I asked him. "You've never been to Omaha, Pop. Omaha's out west. You've never been west of the Hudson River.
"I don't mean Omaha. I mean the place we called Omaha -- Omaha Beach."
I've been going out to see Pop every week at the Veteran's Hospital. Cindy and I had to put him out there when he broke his hip last month. Maybe after his therapy he'll be able to come home again. But we can't take care of him in the shape he is right now, one of us would have to stay home from work.
"You've been talking with the boys again?" I asked him -- the vets in this ward all seem to have D-Day in common.
He looked up at me alertly and nodded. "I met a guy named Simon yesterday," he said. "He was at Utah -- company 'F' -- they were on our left. They had it easy at Utah."
"You'll never get it out of your head, Will you Pop?"
"The beach? No. Prob'ly not."
He looked at me as though I should have known better, and I guess I should by now. I don't know how many times I've seen him like this. When I lived at home the three of us would go out someplace together -- Ma, him and me, and all of a sudden something would happen, and Pop would get this D-Day look on his face. That's what Ma used to call it, 'the D-Day look.' He'd be lost in some kind of remembering, and he wouldn't come back to us until he worked it out of his system. He didn't exactly ignore us, or forget we were there -- but it was plain he was going over something in his head, something we didn't have any part in. I looked at him now, shrunken and old -- if it wasn't for Cindy and me he'd have nobody in the world. Yet .... there's still that part of him he wants to keep to himself, something he wants to be private.
Well .... I had to get going. I checked my watch and it was near supper time and there I was out at the Vet hospital two hours from home -- 'Cindy'll give me hell.' I thought.
"I have to be goin', Pop -- gettin' close to supper time."
He came back part way from that place in his mind enough to say, "Yeah, drive careful, Herbie. Nice of you to drop by. How's Cindy, okay? Doc says I'm doin' pretty good -- have me up on my feet next week. Take a while for the knittin' though -- ain't as young as I used t'be."
I left him there and walked through miles of corridors filled with old soldiers in blue plaid bathrobes, some in wheelchairs like my father, some walking aimlessly. Each of them seemed to share their own part of a remote and exclusive world. I found my way out as quickly as I could, feeling unwelcome -- as though I had crashed my way into a private club. The parking lot was nearly empty and the wind blew through it cold and bitter, but the windows of the old building were brightly lit and looked warm in the early evening light.
What would they be doing in there this
evening? Fighting old battles, rolling up their sleeves to show the wounds that
are so healed over only they can see them, ticking off on their fingers
the count of the dead at Remagen Bridge or the forest of the Ardennes.
"He'll be okay."
"Is he still..."
"Yes, worse than ever, now that he's with the others."
That night I couldn't sleep. I got to thinking of Pop and the others out there in the Vet Hospital. It wasn't only Pop, it was all of them -- they each had a private memory they carried with them. Their wives, their children were kept outside. They would take their story with them to the grave. I got out of bed and sat by the window. Elbows on my knees, head between my hands -- I tried to think of something in my life so big that it would be locked up in me forever. For the life of me I couldn't think of anything I couldn't share with Cindy.
What is it about war anyway? Why is there a
brotherhood of men who fought together that ordinary men can't be part of?
I had never been to war -- Pop had. Almost sixty years ago he waded ashore
on a Godforsaken beach off the coast of France on a cloudy summer day.
Something happened to him there that I will never understand.
"No I wouldn't."
"He does, so do ninety percent of the others. It's a kind of brotherhood I guess." He opened a brown manila envelope and pulled out some color photos. "Look at this," he said. "This is his Echocardiography results -- exceptional for a man his age. He's in better shape than many of the vets from Desert Storm, and yet .... he wants to end his days here." He put the photographs away and stood up. "It's my duty to discharge him if he's well, but if I do that, he'll be back here in a week, sicker than ever."
"What do you want me to do, Doctor?"
"Go home, leave him here -- this is where he wants to be. If he changes his mind I'll let you know."
"I'd like to talk to him first, is that all right?"
"Sure. You know where he is -- third floor. Ward 6B. That's where the Omaha boys hang out."
The Omaha boys! It sounded like a vaudeville act. The Omaha boys in Ward 6B -- it was an act I would never understand. I would never appreciate the humor. They'd laugh and I'd look around wondering why they were laughing.
At the ward desk a nurse told me Pop was in the sunning parlor. "That's where they hang out," he told me. He was in the corner facing two windows looking out over the brown October fields; he swayed in a slow rhythm as though music was playing. He didn't recognize me until I sat down next to him.
"Hi Pop. Just saw the hip doctor -- says
you're doing fine."
"No Pop, a week ago. You know, Pop -- the Doctor's going to release you soon. Cindy and I can't wait to get you home with us again."
He turned the wheelchair around to face me. "I don't know how to tell you this, son .... but I'd just as soon stay here. It's got nothin' to do with you and Cindy -- it's just .... just ...." His voice trailed off and he drifted away again.
"Pop. Pop, what's the matter. Can't you tell me what's the matter?
His eyes seemed to come back in focus, and he looked at me hard for a second, and as if the concentration was too much for him, he let the air out of cheeks and looked down at his feet. "I wish I had the words, Herbie. I wish I was smart enough t'make myself plain to you. It's hard to explain when you don't know what words to use. Nothin' that's ever happened since that day -- nothin' before neither. Gettin' married to your mother -- the day you come along -- nothin' -- nothin'. That day on the beach. I can't ever get past that day, it's like I'm still there."
"I guess I never had a day like that, Pop. Guess that's why I don't understand. But you belong with us, we're your family, Pop."
I could have sworn he didn't hear a word I
said. "We wuz only young kids, y'know? Early twenties -- green behind the
ears. None of us had ever been to Europe -- I had never been outta
Yonkers, 'cept for that one weekend when my folks and me went to Washington. It
wasn't right -- I mean we weren't ready for what they done to us."
"Guy I knew .... Shafroth was his name .... I called him Shaft. Come from Fall River -- we had the same birthday. We stuck together, him and me, we bunked next to each other, gambled together. We'd go t'town weekends together .... all the way to London. We'd pick up girls at the USO and go to the movies, then we'd compare how we made out after we got back to camp."
He looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. "I pushed his dead body ahead of me in the water. I didn't wanna leave him there, Herbie, and I was afraid to go in alone. I kept him between me and the shore. There was the thr-r-rup, thr-r-rup of the bullets in the water all around, and if it wasn't for Shaft I'da been hit f'sure .... ain't that the strangest thing, Herbie? He saved my life -- after he was dead he saved my life. He saved yours too, didn't he. Poor Shaft -- he never lived to have children of his own, did he? Did he, Herbie! Answer me damn it, Herbie! Did he!?"
Pop let the wind out of himself and sort of slumped down into his chair, then he did something I had never seen him do before, even when Mom died. He buried his face in his hands and wept like a child. I looked around in the basket attached to his chair and found a plastic packet of tissues. I opened it and gave it to him.
"Oh, it was a terrible mornin' Herbie. No day for the beach. Gray skies and an east wind. There was fifteen of us. We were closer than family, when one of us was sick we'd watch out for him, and like if one of us was in trouble -- well, we'd cover for him -- lie if we had to." He put his hand out to me.
"You can't know a friendship like that, Herbie, it's closer than brother to brother, father to son -- closer than man to wife even." Then his hand gripped mine tighter than I thought he could. "Then, Herbie -- to see what happened when the ramp went down! Nothin' between us and the beach. No protection! You know how big a 50 caliber bullet is, Herbie? No! 'Course you don't. Big around as your thumb! .... and it'll drill its way through a brick wall. There was 'Cap Fosburgh, Sergeant Lanni, the two corporals, Tanner and Green." His eyes went wide and it was as if he could see them again. "To watch them, Herbie. Guys you loved, cut up like they was chopped meat."
"Pop -- please stop! Can't you forget it?"
He looked at me in pity and slowly shook his head. Then he turned his wheelchair to the window so his back was to me. "No! I ain't forgettin' it, Herbie. Pushin' Shaft ahead'a me -- hidin' behind him -- see'n the pink in the water around us, and knowin' all the time what it was? I ditched him there in the shallow water and I run fer the shelter of the dunes." He showed me his empty hands, palms up.
"I would'a drowned, Herbie .... if I had'na ditched my rifle, my belt -- if I could'a, I would'a ditched my shoes. Then I run .... oh God! how I run fer the dunes. I lay there not able t'breathe, lookin' back at Shaft in the shallow water like a bag of rags. He's still there Herbie. Ain't that the saddest thing -- he still ain't made it to the beach?" He wheeled around again to face me. "Go home, Herbie -- go home."
I stood before him and put my hands on his
shoulders -- he felt so frail. I kissed the top of his head, smooth and pink as
a baby's. So many memories locked up inside. How strong he must have been -- to
have gone through so much, so far from home, so young .... so young.
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