He looked like a hungry baby bird, gasping for breath, eyes watery and unfocused. At that moment, shortly before his death at age 92, I realized that my father’s face was absurdly long and narrow, almost pointy at top and bottom. In old photos, his black curly hair broadened the crown, and a prosperous life filled out the cheeks and chin. Once, he had been movie-star handsome.
No photographs marked his return from World War II after more than two years as a prisoner of war. Behind the barbed wire, he ate bread made with sawdust and beet pulp. His robust six-foot two-inch frame withered to 120 pounds of skin and bone. When the war ended in a forced death march through a blizzard, he survived—barely. If a farmer had not come along…if the farmer had not stopped…if the farmer had not been willing to allow the scarecrow of a man to be placed upon his cart…if the cart had not stopped at the barn…if there had not been other Allied soldiers in that barn…if one of those soldiers had not had soup to share…if there had not been straw and rags to help ward off the cold…if…that day would have been his last.
What happened to him was reported after the war, in official documents designed to place blame. He wrote his version of the facts in small, precisely printed words that fit within the margins of a well-worn volume detailing the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. I remember, most clearly, the subtitle “Where America Lost Her Military Innocence.”
“What they wrote, it didn’t happen that way.” He was agitated for a moment and then collected himself. He looked away and intermittently rubbed the top of his smooth bald head, as if to reassure himself that he was still sitting in a comfortable chair in his living room.
“I took out a machine gun nest, but we were surrounded by Germans. We had no choice but to surrender.” He looked somewhere farther in the distance. Arms across his frail chest, he rubbed his pale elbows. “We were lucky, it was an early skirmish. They didn’t take prisoners after the first few days.”
“They let them go?” I asked, not sure what else could happen.
“They were shot. There were too many. It slowed them down too much.”
Even later, when official hearings sought to lay the framework for war crimes investigations and trials, the facts, as typed on white paper, were too pristine to be real. There was no place for the sweat-drenched sheets, life-long evidence of my father’s recurring nightmares. Or the texture of the congealed lime-green muck that spewed from his lungs at the end of his life. The respiratory infection and pneumonia that killed him were vestiges of the damage done years earlier in the war’s toll of tuberculosis, pleurisy, and malnutrition.
The day he went into the hospital that last time, he told me he was not at all afraid of death. He did not believe in God.
“After what I’ve seen?” he shook his head. “No god would let that happen.” Still, he kept the small version of The New Testament, with its cover of carved hardwood from Jerusalem. It had been a gift from the church pastor to commemorate his high school graduation. The inscription confidently asserted that my father would have a happy life in Christ. I believe that he kept the book, not for its content or benedictions, but because it served as a memory of what he had been, before the trajectory of his life was cut, cauterized, and separated into two parts: before and after Kassarine Pass and the camps.
What surprised me the most about my father how hard he tried to reconnect the tendrils of the two segments of his life. Above all, he never lost his belief in the possibilities of the world around him. Once, somewhat seriously, he told me that life was really a series of brief opportunities to change the randomness of events and create the world you want. If you miss those opportunities, the world-as-it-might-have-been flows past, lost forever. I just stared at him for a time, thinking of the chance encounter, the story often told, of how my parents met. He was driving his mother’s car on an errand. On a whim, he chose a new route that took him down the street where my mother lived. On a quiet afternoon, a boy in a moving car drove past a plain squat house just as a girl walked out the front door and down the front steps. Their eyes met. They smiled. He found out who she was, asked her out, and that was that. Later, they would remark…if he hadn’t gone up 21st Street…If she had been two minutes late…If she had been two minutes early…If the car hadn’t started…if his mother had decided to go to the store that day…if…if…if…Moments of chance and, after, nothing is ever the same.
On the day he fell and fractured his hip—the event that set in motion the events leading to his death two months later—he had left the daily newspaper in his car. I still have it, stored in a box full of old papers and photographs. Its headlines, about DUIs and sick fish in Tampa, Florida, serve as a faded reminder of how quickly life can change, how any day can be the one that unmistakably separates life into a before and an after, with a chasm between the two. I wonder how many of us have such moments somewhere in our lives.
Not long after he told his story of the war for the first time, and the floor of my rental car was littered with foil from Toblerone chocolate bars and empty take-out coffee cups, I made a detour in my route across what was then West Germany to visit a narrow strip of land that jutted out into the Baltic Ocean, the site of one of the camps where he had been held as a prisoner. He had been there very briefly; the camp where he spent the longest time was the notorious Stalag II-B farther east. In those days, travel there—beyond the Iron Curtain—was impossible.
I found nothing in the landscape to guide me on a gray and chilly day in midsummer. My German was laughably limited. When in doubt, I simply said “Es tut mir leid” or “I’m sorry.” It would do for almost anything, a friend had said, although I had nothing for which to apologize. “They like good manners,” my friend had added. I thought of my father, in a boxcar so crowded there was no room to lie down, travelling from Tunisia to Germany.
I imagined that the camp had been situated in one of the fields between the water and the dense, lightless forest. Undoubtedly a desolate stretch of “no man’s land” formed the perimeter. It would probably have been similar to the spaces I had seen along the wall between East and West Germany, omnipresent throughout my trip. Would it have been visible from the beach? From the nearby town?
On the beach, a few people attempted to sun themselves wearing postage-stamp sized swimwear or nothing at all, lounging like beached seals. Within walking distance of the water, rows of parked campers served as summer homes. Flowers tendriling up short picket fences suggested stability amid the trailer hitches. The prisoner-of-war camp had become nothing more than a buried secret, somewhere beneath the landscape.
After the war, while my father recovered in a French hospital, an American officer with too many ribbons of valor told him that—if he wanted to go home—he must agree never to talk about what had happened to him. The officer dangled two pieces of paper, dreams that floated, intertwined, in the air. One required his signature and promised his silence. The other was his transfer for the transatlantic trip back home.
Many years after his return from the war, my father joined a POW support group and decided that he no longer needed permission to speak about his life. He told his secret story in a torrent of anguish, although, somehow, we all had always known. He had hated all things German and, at times, had a distant, jittery, otherworldliness about him. Even in the days before his death, he still, on occasion woke up screaming, sweat-drenched with terror.
“They didn’t care about us,” he reminisced in such a tired and manner-of-fact tone that he could have been reading the phone book. “The money was going to rebuild Germany. There was too much business at stake. So it just turned into Hogan’s Heroes or Steve McQueen on a motorcycle.” Still, he liked those escapisms, the former, a TV series with a laugh track, made fat German prison guards the butt of every joke. He enjoyed seeing the people who almost cost him his life treated with such ridicule. As for the latter, the film The Great Escape, who wouldn’t root for the beautiful blonde actor on a motorcycle, flying over barbed wire with the sun on his face, looking like he was on his way to a beach down by Santa Monica.
When I finally learned of my father’s history, it did not seem remarkable. After all, I had grown up near Washington, DC, and I already knew of secrets buried beneath my feet. Fort Hunt, a few miles south of Alexandria, Virginia, was created to mount cannons to protect the towns along the Potomac River—along with Washington, DC—during in the Spanish American War. Remnants of the fort still exist. In photographs posted online from my high school reunion (I did not attend), the graduates, now middle aged and mostly gone to paunch, posed for a group shot amid the ruins in a well-mowed field. But no trace remains of the nearby complex that had held 4,000 German prisoners during World War II. Reportedly, some of the POWs were held in underground bunkers, but now, no one knows. After, files were destroyed, records lost in a fire, and the buildings demolished. However, photographs have been posted on the Internet. It is said that many of the German scientists who later fueled the efforts to place an American on the moon had been held there. I wonder if every place holds a secret or two.
In 1945, the Allied prisoners, thin and weak, lined up inside the barbed wire fence. In rows, they moved out into the blizzard, my father among them, weak with dysentery, tuberculosis, and pleurisy. The German Shepherds, with sleek coats, instilled a will to move, at least for a time. An Allied doctor, an officer still in reasonably good physical condition, pleaded with the guards. They threatened him with the dogs. All of this is recounted in detail in war crimes reports. The doctor saw the futility of arguing with the dogs’ razor teeth and predatory eyes. He went back to his place in the long line of men. Ashen faced, they walked. Labored breathing and coughs punctuated the winter silence, filled with the smells of vomit, urine, feces, fear, and death.
In the hospital, just before he died, one watery eye, a distant blue, like the Potomac on a good day, stared at me. I kissed him lightly, noticing, as if for the first time, that he really did shave his head. A slight rim of soft white hair circled his ears, and his eyebrows grew a bushy orange. I could not understand his slurred speech. Almost translucent, he faded into the pillows and blankets, a frail mound in a large bed, red hospital socks peeping from under the sheet and thin blanket. I remembered that, since the war, he said his feet were always cold. They were never again warm enough.
I realized that, in the time we had spent together near the end, I had finally been able to see him for what he was—a fragile man who had always tried very hard, sometimes against terrifying odds. And I had learned what he had known since the day his life divided into two parts: even though secrets may come to the surface, we are never really done with them. They bind us for all our lives.
Just before he died, he often was not completely lucid. I wondered how many of his memories faded with each beep of the machinery. The lines on the monitors occasionally spiked into red zones, alerts sounding a high-pitched scream. No one responded. The room was cold.
Someone had gathered his belongings and placed them in a clear plastic bag, clothes folded, diabetic-support shoes neatly placed together. They had Velcro strips, not laces. His wallet contained his POW and Veterans Administration ID cards, his driver’s license, and two $20 bills. I stared at the photographs on his IDs. In all of them, he smiled, looking into the camera with hope. It occurred to me that this tidying-up had been done so that, when he died, his survivors could quickly scoop up his effects. The room was almost ready for the next occupant.
Cathy Herbert’s work has been published in The New York Times and other venues. An MFA graduate from the University of Delaware, her paintings have appeared in solo exhibitions in major cities and have been honored with numerous awards. She owns Cherbert Editorial and writes for medical journals and consumer audiences.