This piece began as a response to a writing prompt in our writer’s group, The Deadly Writers Platoon. It was a few weeks before Veterans Day, and our group leader asked us to write something on the subject of veterans day, and what it meant to us, and the prompt included the word “armistice”. What crossed my mind first was that my father was alive at the end of World War I, and that he was a World War II veteran, so I wrote a short, unedited piece about that in the twenty minutes we were given. We read our pieces, and folks in the group suggested I take that home and write more about my father. What follows is the piece I wrote at home, and I read it in the 2017 Returning Soldiers Speak event in Pasadena, hosted by SGV Front Line at American Legion, Pasadena, Post 13, on November 7th, 2017.
November 11th, 1918, Armistice Day, marked the end of the First Wold War between Allied Forces and Germany. My father was a little boy then, born to poor immigrants, the grandparents I never knew because they had died before my father married.
I like to imagine there was hope in that Armistice Day, a sense of relief, rebuilding, and an optimistic intention that there could never be another war like that.
I imagine my father was a good little boy, fun and cheerful, because he was a good man. He loved playing with me and my two brothers, and all the kids in our neighborhood.
He had a tough growing up though. His German and Polish mother had to hide to pray her rosary while his father, who hated prayer, ruled the house with anger. He had been a street tough and a bank robber on death row when he was young, but through some act of mercy or opportunity for redemption he’d been released from prison and had a family.
I never saw the pain of that childhood in my father who adored all of us kids and our mother. He never talked about his parents except when he used the occasional German phrase his mother used to use. His favorite was “ach du liebe zeit!”, usually uttered with an exaggerated sense of exasperation and a hint of a smile. It meant something like “oh my goodness”, or “good heavens”, and it followed events of our childhood such as one of us bringing home a big lizard, or stepping in a cow patty at Uncle Joe’s farm.
I learned about my grandmother’s rocky marriage on the day of my father’s funeral when some of our older cousins told us family stories we’d never heard. They told me the first Sunday after my grandfather died, my grandmother Lula Rose picked up her cane and hobbled with her arthritis to mass. Her husband had never permitted her to attend church or raise their children in a faith.
My father had a natural spirituality and wanted to belong to something. As a very young man he went against the counsel of his naysaying Baptist relatives and decided to become a Catholic like his mother. He had to sneak around his father to take the lessons, and my grandmother helped him do it.
Years after her husband died, my grandmother Lula was sorting through old boxes when she ran across the letter from my grandfather that had led to their marriage, a letter she’d only read once, and then not thoroughly.
Lula Rose sat in the attic and re-read the letter, “Yes, we’ll get married in the church to please your parents…” She’d been elated, and they did get married in the church, but on the first Sunday after their wedding my grandfather forbade their going to mass. This was a root of their fighting until he died, and a part of the every day war in the home where my father grew up. Now reflecting, Lula read the letter again. She turned it over and read the back page, the part of the letter she had not read before: “…but after we get married,” wrote my grandfather, “we’ll never set foot in a church again.”
The newspaper reports about my grandfather’s trial for armed robbery say there was a young woman sitting in the courtroom every day in support of my grandfather. I think that was our grandmother Lula, and she must have believed in him.
One thing I remember about my childhood is that when we were little our parents, or maybe it was mostly my mother, always told us, “Your father was in the Navy. He fought in the war.” My father was forty-six when he had his first child, and the war they were talking about was World War II. My father was in for the whole war, in the South Pacific and at the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach.
He didn’t talk about the war, but he talked about the Navy a lot. He told us which side of a ship was port, and which was starboard, about how to tie different kinds of knots, and about learning navigation by stars. He used to say, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, and red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” He told us about crossing the equator for the first time and getting his Shellback.
Dad told us he’d wanted to join the Navy a few years before the war, but was turned down for active duty because his vision wasn’t good enough, so he enlisted in the Navy Reserves. Dad said it was amazing how fast his vision improved when the war broke out.
One of my brothers remembers our father sharing this one thing about D-Day. After the landing some of the wounded marines were evacuated onto Navy craft into the bunks of sailors, and this one sailor came up and yelled at the wounded marine for being in his bunk. So my Dad yelled at the sailor, “What’s wrong with you man? Where’s your milk of human kindness?”. This phrase, “milk of human kindness”, stays in my mind as the essence of my father, although I never heard him say it.
Gradually through school, books, and movies, we learned about the Holocaust and about concentration camps. Years later I was stationed in Germany as a young Army officer, and our unit ran PT in formation in the mornings near the graves of a few German university students who had been my age when they were executed for their efforts at resisting Hitler and the Nazis.
I learned about these resistance fighters, about what they had done, and how in their heroic way they were fighting the same thing my father was fighting. They’d been given a death for traitors, a death by guillotine one afternoon in 1943 at the prison that still stood just around the corner from my bachelor officer quarters. I think about those students often. Their courage is an ongoing reminder that standing up for truth and for the dignity of humanity is worth it, and that life should be dedicated to what matters, to truth, dignity, and to kindness. Yes, the milk of human kindness that my father possessed no matter the circumstances of his upbringing or the conditions of war.
Dad told me one time that after the war he didn’t like being in the Navy as much. He said the Navy was kind of like your parents. They give you your clothes, and your bed, and your chow, and your job, and after the war there didn’t seem to be as much of a purpose. He wanted to get out in the world and make it on his own. Thanks to the GI Bill he was the first in his family to go to college and get a bachelor’s degree.
After graduation and still single, he went to work at first painting houses with his brother’s crew. My grandfather had been a painting contractor too. Along with telling us how to tie knots and estimate the distance to the horizon, Dad taught us how to paint, how to hold the brush, how to cut in with a straight line at the ceiling, and how to care for the tools of the trade. He painted the rooms in our house growing up, and I’ve painted most of the rooms in my house too.
One day a man watched my father painting houses on my uncle’s crew, and noticed how hard he worked. He said, “That’s one hard-working young man. He should have a better paying job than that.” He hired my Dad for the sales force of a publishing company, in the textbook division.
And that’s how we became rich in America, my brothers and I. My Dad loved books and learning, children and schools, teachers, our neighbors, and his own family above all. He had a genuine deep faith in the divine nature of the world. He saw every field and every sky as beautiful and as the evidence of God’s existence. Our house was full of books, samples of literature books, science books, and science kits with little microscopes and slides and various experiments that went along with the science books. We had flashcards with animals on them, and every educational thing the company produced, we played with it at home, excited about discovering how things work.
I don’t have any sense of knowing who my grandfather was, who he became after he got out of prison, or what he thought or felt. I didn’t hear the stories about the good of him. All good stories have conflict, and it was the conflict my cousins shared with me. But I do know that he and Lula Rose gave me the gift of my father.
Our parents both worked hard, enjoyed having kids, were fair-minded, and kind to their friends. Their gratitude for what they had and for having us far out-weighed any complaints they had about where they came from or how hard life could be at times. We had everything we needed to have a good life. These are the gifts they gave us along with their love. To see the world as more good than bad, to be hopeful, to carry our own weight, and to help others when they need help. To be able to smile after tragedy, to sense that even in the worst of circumstances truth will overcome falsehood, and to sense that love will overpower hate even if it takes longer than a lifetime. These are the gifts that matter. These are the gifts that help us reconcile after war and the gifts that help us carry on as a nation.
Lucy M. Meseberg
The Deadly Writers Platoon meets weekly at Wellness Works, Glendale. Returning Soldiers Speak holds annual events and workshops and has published anthologies of veterans’ writing.