In March, I headed to Arizona as part of a family emissary
to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday. I’ve had a long and
often hard relationship with the man who left my grandmother and notified the
family via a letter six months later that he was remarried. He spent his life
as a police officer in various capacities, working his way up to chief in a
medium-sized Illinois city. His clashes with the counter-culture kids in the
1960s left him with a vocabulary best unheard.
I still cringe when I think about the time he was flipping
through the channels around 5 p.m., coming across nothing but local news and
Cosby Show reruns.
“Nothing on at this time a’day except niggers and news,” he
He had moved to the desert upon retirement and I hadn’t seen
him in almost a decade, when he attended my wedding. I spent much of the trip
worrying about how this was going to be.
My cousins spent half the time trying to inform him about
their lives, going as far as to buy him an iPad so they could “facetime” their
children to him every week. He kept trying to politely dissuade them from this
action, to no avail. I spent the majority of the time in the shadows, wondering
when this would be over.
Somewhere along the way, I found myself with him pretty much
alone at his place. He sat down and showed me the various materials he’d
garnered a few months back when he was presented with a chance to go on an
The program was used to honor vets and to help bring them to
Washington, D.C. and allow them to see the memorials to their service. Decades
after they’d last fought the Axis of Evil, they were once again shown the
gratitude of a country.
As he showed me the books and photos, he began to tell me
stories of what life was like in the wartime Navy. It was the first time he
ever said anything about it to me. It might have been the first time anyone had
The fights against German U-Boats. The way he was supposed
to be sent to the Middle East. The various moments in which life and death were
all around and random chance picked one side or the other.
Near the end, he’d received discharge orders, but it was
going to take a month to fly him home. He met up with the officer in charge of
a battleship and asked for safe passage home. The guy told him he could come
aboard, but that he didn’t have a bunk for him. If Grandpa could find some
accommodations, he could hitch a ride.
My grandfather stuffed about 25 life vests into a gunner’s
turret and slept in a nest for two weeks.
He came home, restarted his civilian life and never looked
Over the years, I’ve met a number of people from his
generation who fought during the war. One year, my wife worked for an elderly
lady at a bookstore. The lady and her husband came to a Fourth of July
barbeque. For some reason, the man never talked about the war, but felt
compelled to this time.
He was a ball turret gunner, a position that did not make
for longevity. Poetry of the war had them “washed out” of their turrets after
During one sky battle, his plane was rocked by an explosion
that rendered him unconscious. Ground medics took him for dead and had him
bagged up in the morgue. When he arose, he scared the shit out of everyone.
He was in line for about a half-dozen medals thanks to his
efforts that day. All he needed to do was fill out the paperwork. Instead, he
drove a jeep full of his crew to a bar in town, as he promised he would if they
survived the mission. He said he never regretted it once.
Less than a year after that party, he died.
When I was in eighth grade, my teacher brought in a
Holocaust survivor. I can’t remember the man’s name, but he told us stories
that freaked us out. Stories about suicides that went unchecked. Stories about
horrible camp abuse. Stories about wives of Nazi officers picking through the
belongings of the interned like it was some sort of sample sale.
Each week, he would visit another school, another group,
another city and tell the same tales. We had him back for a second visit that
year. Each time he told his stories, he broke down a bit and cried. When a kid
asked why he’d voluntarily relive this each week, he explained it was something
he had to do. It was important that people understand what happened so that
they would never forget it.
His pain also delivered hope. His sadness informed our
This morning, I thought about all these people, but
especially Ellen Shoshany Kaim, the woman who saved $30,000 to place a
commemorative boulder in a Madison park. Mrs. Kaim’s statement to me was that
it was important that we never forget, that there is guilt in surviving and
that this was never really over hit home once again.
Turns out, that not only are the survivors and freedom
fighters still alive, but so are members of the dark side.An Associate Press
investigation found that a leader of a Nazi-led Ukrainian group is living in
Minnesota. Michael Karkoc is 94 and stands accused of “liquidating” numerous
villages as a leader of an SS unit. In 1949, he came to the states, lied about
his service and began his life as a post-war American.
Now, so many years later, his past has finally caught up
Men like Karkoc are why my grandfather and hundreds of
thousands of others like him volunteered to fight. The sense of right and wrong
was so pervasive, it couldn’t be overlooked. Perhaps that’s why they all had so
much trouble with later generations in which right and wrong were much more
nuanced and things weren’t always what they had once been.
The remaining Karkocs of the world also the reason why survivors of those camps
continue to speak out about what they saw and experienced. They tell children
of a time decades ago in which the depravity of man came to full flower and how faith, luck and the power of the human spirit kept them alive. Many of the youngest
survivors are now reaching their 80s, but they press on with memories they
force themselves to recall.
As long as they are alive, they know that people on the
other side will be alive as well, trying to let decades of hiding wash away
And thus, they fight on.