By Tim Hawkins
We both take note of the man-boys throughout the diner with their baseball caps perched frontward or backward, not one bothering to hang his lid on the coat rack or place it on an empty seat.
The look of puzzled distaste creeps onto the old man’s face like five o’clock shadow. Even today, in the heat of summer, he dresses formally in a coat and tie. His silver-knobbed cane leans elegantly against the side of the booth where we finish our lunch.
He had recently remarked on the sloppy attire of the few remaining young congregants at his church. Most of the lunch patrons slouch in tank tops, running shorts, or cut-off jeans, their dirty feet dangling a flip-flop or perched up on the banquette. If he could see well enough to notice, he would comment.
“Your grandmother had written me a 57-page letter,” he says, his gnarled fingers struggling to open a creamer.
He is a slow and deliberate eater, and has finally finished his biscuits and gravy. I fight the urge to seize the creamer from his trembling hands and tear it open with a decisive stroke.
He is opening up a little about his service in the 258th Field Artillery Battalion, with whom he fought across Europe in the Battle of the Bulge, and I don’t want to distract him or deter him from continuing.
I’d been raised on some amusing anecdotes of his military service:
How, as a sergeant, he had been the self-appointed company scavenger, how he could set off into a French village with a carton of cigarettes and a bar of chocolate and come back with a chicken, a sack of potatoes, or a bottle of brandy to share with his men to round out their C-Rations. How one night he had saved the brandy for himself, gotten drunk, and fallen into a trench latrine.
How he had cleaned up playing poker on the troop ship headed stateside, and how some bastard had stolen his winnings, his Swiss watch, and the German luger from his footlocker.
Lately, though, he has begun confiding darker stories lacking punchlines. Last week, at lunch, he told me in a very quiet voice about what it was like to liberate a major Dachau sub-camp. Today he’s telling me another story I’ve never heard.
“She spent 20 pages telling me about your dad and another 20 telling me about her job in the hosiery mill,” he says. “I had just got to the part about my brother when a German plane flew out of a cloud bank and started strafing our position.”
His captain and two other soldiers were killed in their foxholes. Grandpa and a companion saved themselves by diving between the tracks of the unit’s M5 high-speed tractor. When they emerged, they were both bleeding profusely from largely superficial shrapnel wounds but were otherwise intact.
“The other guy, he put in right away for a Purple Heart,” he says.
“How about you?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “I didn’t feel right about it.”
I knew he deserved one. For years following the war, every so often while shaving, a thin sliver of shrapnel would work its way out of his face. He would drop it into a jar he kept on his nightstand.
“All that metal there was in my face and my neck and chest,” he said, showing me the jar when I was a boy. “That’s the only souvenir I have from the war.”
He didn’t feel right about a medal because he was wounded just as he read the news from his wife that his 21-year-old brother had been killed by a Japanese sniper on Iwo Jima.
I had heard about Uncle Carroll and his gregarious likeability and mischievousness, but I never knew my grandfather had found out about his younger brother’s death in this way.
I look around the diner. It is August 2008, the height of the Great Recession. The harried, balding manager scurries around helping two haggard waitresses and the middle-aged busboy; all probably downsized from something else.
Grandma is just up the road at Potter Hills. She could no more write a 57-page letter than she could tell you the year or recognize either one of us. We have just come from a visit, during which she insisted we were there to kidnap her.
I think about that young wife back home in North Carolina, struggling to convey such awful news. And I think about that slim and chiseled soldier, and that lonely, far-away death on an outcropping of rock.
When I was a boy, I thought of my great uncle as another old man from long ago. Now I know he was just a boy, far from home. Far away from everything he knew, far away from groceries and diners and families.
Are we both wondering, “What was the point of it all?”
I don’t know, but meanwhile, the busboy cleans as fast as he can to accommodate the line at the door.
He scoops the empty plates from the table next to ours, gives it a wipe with his rag, and trips as he heads back toward the kitchen. The bus tub lands next to us with a shattering roar.
“Incoming!!!” yells one of the man-boys out from under his baseball cap.
“Holy shit, what a retard,” says his pal, laughing himself silly.
Grandpa slaps a $20 on the table, slowly picks up his cane, raps it loudly against the linoleum floor, and stands to face them.
“You don’t know what real incoming sounds like,” he says to the first. “And you,” he says, turning to the second one. “You watch your mouth and show a little respect. That man is trying to earn a living.”
“Let’s get out of here, bud.”
I help this man gather his things and hold his arm as he walks with dignity toward the door. Neither of us bothers to look back. Nobody else bothers to say a thing.