Saturday, June 6, 2009

He Never Left Omaha Beach

I remember his name being Wendell. He was tall, not basketball player tall, but the height I hoped to one day grow to. His face was already alcoholic lined and so many pockmarks, the sort caused by teen age acne left ignored by ignorance or cost. His eyes were a series of black circles matching the flecks of dirt that all but fell out of his ears. His teeth were a hard dark yellow even though he was still technically a young man. His hair was cut Army short, though there was hardly any left.

He had a noticeable scar over his right eye. The tip of his left middle finger was missing. Both happened, he said, after the war: the first in a bar fight; the second, a farming accident. The man was a mess.

He sat alone by the water’s edge, not mumbling to himself or flailing away at imaginary combatants like so many of the other performers in Brittingham Park. He simply sat there, occasionally tossing out a pebble, staring straight ahead out towards the far shores of the lake. He smoked one Lucky Strike after another.

He’d take a couple of quick puffs, then leave the cigarette dangling from his lips before hitting it for one last drag. He’d flick it into Monona, watch as it bobbed around in the water until the waves brought it back to shore. He would pick up the soggy butt and bury it into the grass in some odd formation only of his understanding. Seconds later, he would check in his pocket for the pack and light the next one up. One afternoon he smoked his way through two packs, leaving forty cigarettes face down in neat rows along the shoreline before walking out of the park. He left none in the water.

Wendell spoke softly perhaps embarrassed by his high pitched voice. He was in his early 30s, but since the war he felt older than his grandfather. I don’t know how we started talking, me an eight-year old and him old enough to be my father. Times were different back then. I lived two blocks away from the park and never thought once about worrying about my safety. I don’t remember ever being told not to talk to strangers as long as they weren’t too odd looking or too drunk.

Perhaps I wanted to bum a cigarette. My mom still smoked at the time; my dad stopped after his first coronary almost dropped him dead in front of us. Cigarettes were not part of my diet at home. Right now I wasn’t at home.

Everybody’s Wendell’s age had fought in the war. Not the Korean War which no one talked about even back then, but World War II. My dad had fought in Europe, but he never spoke of it. No matter how many times I asked what life was like in a prisoner of war camp, he came back with another story about how great life was in America. He told me to learn about the war from reading books or speaking to someone else.

Wendell never gave me my first Lucky Strikes. He said I should wait until I was ten like he did. He grew up a couple of towns over from Jesse James's farm, but spent his summers with an uncle living like Tom Sawyer near Hannibal. I knew who Jesse James was from television; a couple of nights before he had fought a gun battle with Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok over some woman in a saloon. Jesse James never fought in World War II as far as I knew. Tom Sawyer was news to me.

I was an impatient kid. “Cut to the chase” or “move on to the third act already” I would tell people later in life when the preamble to the story was already dragging my interest down. I wanted to know how many people Wendell killed in the war, not who his neighbors were or names of childhood friends like Tom Sawyer.

He said he shot a lot of animals as a kid, but shooting rabbits and squirrels was a whole lot easier than trying to bring down than a soldier firing back from behind rocks or trees. He didn’t know how many people he plugged, maybe none. He just spent his time in Europe walking in one direction and stepping over more bodies than were buried in all the Lutheran cemeteries between Kearney and the Mississippi. He used to take pictures of them, though he now had forgotten why. He burned them all one night shortly after he left Missouri. He said he was drunk. One day he wanted to go back to Europe and take pictures of living things, but only after he felt better. He never spoke directly to me. Either he looked at the ground or watched intently as his cigarette butts washed along the shoreline.

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. Wendell was one of the tens of thousands of soldiers who hit Omaha Beach that morning. He said he just closed his eyes as the LCVP neared the shore, opening them only when the guys behind him pushed him out into the water. He said he swallowed half the red Atlantic that morning, lost his weapon almost immediately, pushed buddies aside as he fought the waves and found plenty more guns waiting for him when he finally struggled his way onto the sands.

Wendell rarely spoke of further wartime adventures beyond the shoreline, as if everything else, including the times he saw both Eisenhower and Patton, never really mattered. Even in his dreams, his war stopped at the sands of Omaha Beach, he once said softly. No matter how many questions I asked him, his war memories ended that cold morning in June, 1944.

He only saw his own blood once: the night he slipped and cracked a tooth while running past a dead horse looking for a place to pee. He was lucky, he said, in between puffs of smoke. No one else he really knew came home breathing. He let slip about spending some time in a hospital after the war which made no sense to me. What was he doing in a hospital if he had never been shot?

He went back to Missouri after the war, but his mom had died by then. His father was now living with a women Wendell hated because his old man had been hanging around with her even before he left for the Army. His girlfriend was gone; died in childbirth, his friends told him though no one would give him any information who the father was or even if the child had lived. He’d spent a couple of nights in jail for disorderly conduct or firing a gun into a house, I’m not quite sure any longer. Over the last decade plus, he had floated from one relative to friends to VA hospital. He was now living in Madison in his great aunt’s garage over on Jenifer Street, but he was going off to California shortly, hopefully to build ships.

He wanted to go back into the Army, but they wouldn't have him. He had tried finishing up his high school degree, but school never interested him. Whatever he would learn from books, he had already seen more with his eyes. He once said to me that he felt like one of those floating cigarette butts that needs some assistance making it back to shore.I don't know if he ever made it back I don't know if he ever made it back. I never saw Wendell again after that summer. The boy from Missouri had survived Omaha Beach. Whether the veteran I met more than fifty years ago found the strength to swim towards a more serene shoreline for himself remains unknown to me. I pray he did.