[ formerly titled “Objection.”]
Dad never knew his parents. He heard about them both, from his Uncle Gabriel and Aunt Marietta in Springfield, on the rare respite they’d give him from the foster home or the Walter E. Fernald School in Waverly. They’d tell him things – how his brute of a father sang opera that you could hear down the block, in between the storied rumors of his philandering….about his mother, being committed, speaking only Italian, with no defense….and, about his cousin, Jerry Marengi, who would go on to become a world famous Munchkin. These things we all, as his family, would carry forward in the form of his legend.
So, when Dad escaped the confines of his anonymity, via the freight cars that carried him all the way to California from Boston, joining the US Army seemed almost logical. Free room and board, a hot meal (for which he’d panhandled so artfully as a self taught harmonica and bones man), a little physical agility, and he was in. In, to await deployment by the powers in place to submit him. No ties, no accountability; he was their easiest prey.
Fort Riley, Kansas was the first destination. Having had a few trumpet lessons in the Fernald school, he was ripe for lead bugle – and, played Taps and Reveille dutifully on the horns the army gave him. Organizing, and then leading, a parade for the dignitaries on base earned him the rank of Corporal, which he held proudly until his death.
Dad, however, didn’t die in battle. Oh, no. He was one of the survivors. In fact, when the war commenced, he being third fastest runner in his outfit they shipped him to Germany right off. But, from that point, his always colorful stories were few; Dad would only speak in detail of the day he, as a member of the forward observing team of the 3rd armored, had to “infiltrate the enemy” at the Bulge. It was snowing, and he had a cough, and they had to shoot all the German prisoners on orders. But, they all lived through that hell and, in exchange for it, every infantryman received the Bronze Star.
But, somewhere between enlisting and coming home the victor, there were less celebratory if more defining moments. There were the AWOLs. There was the all night guard duty. And, there was the guard house – where he’d frequently qualify, to all who would listen, his presence on Pearl Harbor Day, which was also his birthday. Dad’s role in all this emerged as a stand alone story; he wasn’t there for the medals.
I can’t remember what year it was. PBS was airing several mini-series, most of them documentaries, and the historian who stood out above the rest was Ken Burns. Ken Burns made his life work the chronicle of America, and he did it well. Never before seen footage, all the real thing, of everything from the jazz greats to, yes, American soldiers, in action.
Naturally, in the course of the Burns chronology of World War II, America’s most outstanding general received his own, multiple chapters. George S. Patton, the formidable, would be displayed in all his imposing force, with selected film clips in abundance. One of these stopped me in my tracks.
I’ll never forget the evening. Probably dull of wit from a snacking binge, I had to be jolted awake by the scene. But, the image. The image was unmistakeable.
Patton, Burns narrated, was always hard on his men. He never entertained the faint of heart, for any reason, chasing them down whenever he could. On one particular day, seems he’d found one: there, before our eyes, underscored by the unwitting Burns, was an army hospital, and one, lean, lone, raven haired soldier on a cot by the wall. The General loomed, raising his hand over this cowering young man, even in silent film barking forcefully at him to get up. The cameraman did not include the strike, but rumors were well circulated that this was part of the Patton package.
I recognized my father instantly.
No one knows when this happened. All anybody knew was Dad left the war a decorated forward observer, shell shocked, a victim of PTSD for the rest of his life. He could never tolerate fireworks (“screeming Meemies”) or sudden explosions of any kind, and would warn us repeatedly until his final years never, ever to come up behind him in the dark.
I wrote directly to Ken Burns, asking him to edit that segment from his series. The next time it aired, as God is my witness, actors portrayed that scene.
But, no actor could characterize my father as he was. Dad was a transparent innocent. He had none of the conventional role models, not a one. He was blessed with many gifts, one of them being the honest candor for which he was beloved by all. Dad was nobody’s victim.
God, in the wisdom mankind will never understand, spared Dad’s life – his, along with so many others, a fact for which the man himself always gave his Creator the glory. I like to think that Dad was protected because of his honesty. There is a fearlessness in such truth.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 5/30/16 All rights, in whole, in part, in word, and in letter, the sole property of the author, whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect.