Sunday, November 10, 2013

IN THE PRESENCE OF A WWII VETERAN

My Dad, H.D. Varnum 1941

I was in the bank in Sierra Vista the other day waiting for one of the bank employees that take you to a cubical. There was an old gentleman that had arrived before me. I don't know his name, and I didn't feel like I had a right to be snoopy and ask. For the sake of this story I'm going to call him "Joe". As in "G.I. Joe."

Joe started talking about being too busy to wait much longer. The lady that normally waited on him wasn't there so he'd have to wait for Josh, and he nodded toward a cubicle where a young man was assisting another customer.
“I'm a busy man. I have to get back to my business...have a woodworking business...'am going to go tell that lady behind the counter over there. I'll just go tell her I can’t wait like this.” As Joe got up and walked away, I noticed he was a slight little man as crooked as the top of his cane. Suspenders and a cap. Just like Grandpa.
Meanwhile, another gentleman sat down in the waiting area. When Joe came back and joined us he starting talking to the newly arrived man, who I soon discovered, was a Vietnam vet. In the course of the conversation I learned that Joe was 90+ years old and had been in the Battle of Bastogne. "The Bastard Battle of Bastogne" Joe called it. Said he was in the 28th Infantry Division. “I was in that stinking trench nine days. And it did stink! I would have done anything to get out of that stinking trench. General McAuliffe was only 28 at that time. He lost a leg over there you know. Not many people know that. He was tall and had dark black curly hair. He was so young and handsome, he looked like a movie star.”
“He [General McAuliffe] said, 'Boys, when we get a chance to go for it, aim for that slit in the tank, and don’t miss.' We told him we never miss. We did it, too. Stopped them and cut a hole right through them.”
It struck me that I wasn't watching the History Channel. I was in the presence of a veteran who had fought in WWII, one of the few still living veterans from the last big war, the last world war. Joe had actually been there! As I sat there listening to his incredible stories I got a lump in my throat. 
     I asked him if he had been to the Memorial in Washington. “Yes. I told them those crosses at Arlington, there aren't no bodies there. Just names painted on crosses. Think about it. It was summer. We had no way to take care of all those bodies. No caskets. Nothing that we could do to get them out of there, we had no way to take care of all them bodies. Dog tags is all that came home.” He said they dug a big trench and all the bodies, German, Dutch, French, and Americans went in it. The lump in my throat turned to tears. Couldn't stop ‘em.
He talked about the big welcome home he received. The Vietnam vet said he sure didn't get that kind of welcome when he came home. Joe said, “Yeah, you guys got a bad end on that one.”
This is just a little bit of the stories he poured out, so simple and natural. Silly, I tried to control my emotions for Joe’s sake. Don’t know why I thought that was necessary. I couldn’t. I cried all through my bank transaction. I asked the girl helping me for a tissue. I don't know what she must of thought, but Joe’s stories had a deep emotional effect on me. I felt so honored to be in his presence.
The Vietnam vet asked him, “Have you written about your story, or has anybody ask to write about it?”
“Oh, my daughter-in-law, my daughter. I wouldn't know where to begin. It was hell. War is not a pretty thing. Not a nice place to be. I wouldn't know how to tell the story. You know, it’s one of those things that you would have had to have been there to understand. Nobody could know what you’re talking about unless they’d been there. There’s just no way to describe it.” 
      I was wishing I could write his story. If only I would have had a notebook, or a tape recorder. If I would have had the guts to ask him his name. It just seemed a little inappropriate, being in the waiting room of a bank and all.
As I left, I told Joe, “I’m so sorry you had to wait, but I feel so honored to have met you and to have listened to your recollections.” Tears were still in my eyes, but thankfully, Joe seemed unfazed by them.
When I got home I was all over Wikipedia reading about World War II. The Siege of Bastogne was a smaller battle that sprung from the Battle of the Bulge. It took place in the winter, December 20-27, 1944. Seven days, not nine. General Anthony C. McAuliffe was born in 1898, which would have made him older than the twenty-eight years that Joe recollected. General McAuliffe is famous for his single-word reply of “Nuts” in response to a German demand of surrender. As I read along I didn't care about comparing Joe’s stories to textbook facts. If only he was here now to ask about these things. I read the facts about WWII, and watched shows about it on the History Channel, but none of it touched me the way this living Veteran from WWII did; an old man I happened to meet in the bank a couple days before Veterans Day. My tears have dried up, but my heart is still tender for all of the veterans who have faced the horrors of war. God bless you all this Veterans Day, and forever. I salute you from the bottom of my heart.
From my family of soldiers to yours.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

You touched my heart; I cried when I read this. I had relatives that fought in Europe then, but never heard any of their stories. May God bless them all.

Trula Varnum said...

Thank you for sharing. My Dad would never talk about the war. I had so many questions. Dad would just say "I don't want to talk about it." I think that's why this sweet old man in the bank effected me so.

Thank you for leaving a comment. Trula

Zane Varnum said...

This is a great story. I freeze in my tracks when I see an older veteran (as in Grandpa's or Granddad's would be age), and always try to stop and thank them for their service and sacrifice. I recognize Granddad Varnum as the top picture, who is in the picture on the bottom of the page?

Trula Varnum said...

That is an unknown relative. Mom had boxes and boxes of old pictures. She didn't write on the back of them who they were. Did you see my earlier post about my unknown relatives. Maybe they weren't relatives. Maybe they were just friends. Can't ask Mom now. I know the ones that were Mom's boyfriends during the war. She showed them to me and told me a little story about each one. They were all kept in the same envelope. This was not one of her boyfriends, so I just don't know.

Wouldn't it be cool if someone out there recognized him and left a message here?