(Published in The Express-Times on May 27, 2001. Awarded Best Columnist Award by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.)
My grandfather doesn’t talk about the war.
Oh sure, I know the basics. Irving Levine, my mom’s dad, enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in Brooklyn. He served in the Pacific theater as a gunner on a bomber. He came back, married my drop-dead gorgeous grandmother, and you can figure out the rest on your own.
Beyond that, I don’t know much about his time in World War II.
You’d think I might. After all, I’m pretty close with my grandfather. I spent nearly every weekend at my grandparents’ place in Flatbush, Brooklyn, N.Y., until I was about 13.
My grandfather taught me to read and hit a baseball by the time I was 3. He also taught me how “it takes a man to admit he’s wrong,” and how “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” that’s important. Among other things.
So you’d think that I – the grandson who gets paid to ask questions – might’ve found some way to get him to tell me about his time in World War II.
But I didn’t.
When I was a kid, I asked my grandfather if he knew anyone in the war who died. He said yes. Anybody on his plane? Yes.
End of conversation.
Another time as a kid, I asked that naive question: “Did you kill anybody?”
I don’t remember his response, but I don’t think he dignified it with an answer.
Oh sure, he’s shared a few episodes over the years. How other soldiers treated him differently when they learned he was Jewish. The time a typhoon sent his company’s tent sky high while he was cooking eggs and he decided to keep cooking the eggs while the storm raged. Or his days playing quarterback for a military team at the University of Mississippi and third base out at Okinawa.
But never the full war stories. Irv Levine never talked to me about war itself.
And having seen too many movies and read too many novels, I had a notion of war in my head.
At 17, I was set on joining the U.S. Army. (If not for a new recruiting sergeant fumbling my scholarship application for the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, I’d probably be a first lieutenant today instead of a reporter).
When he learned of my interest, my grandfather advised against it.
Well, that took me aback. I mean, here’s my grandfather – the indestructible former quarterback, the tough Coney Island auto parts businessman, a guy whose mere presence revoked any anti-Semitic stereotype of weak-kneed accountants – and he’s against me joining the army?
I thought about this last Friday.
Several grown men stood in Miller Heights Elementary School’s cafeteria that day and told a group of fifth-graders about their service in World War II. A couple broke down crying, recalling friends they’d lost.
Now, these guys weren’t hypersensitive pretty boys you see reading bad poetry in Starbucks as they sip their double frappacinos. Instead, these were guys like my grandfather, simple guys who’d seen the harsh realities of life, overcome some of them, and made their peace with the rest.
One minute, Easton resident Vincent Vicari told the kids in his hard-edged New York accent, “Don’t ever take your freedom for granted.” Moments later, that hard edge cracked when he talked about his time in Holland and Belgium.
Turns out that one night he found a unit of soldiers laying beneath blankets in a ditch.
“I figured they were tired and had gone to sleep,” Vicari said.
So, Vicari joined them for the night. He hunkered down, hit the ground, passed out.
“I woke up, and they were still lying in a blanket,” Vicari said. “So I turned to the sergeant and asked about it. He turned around to me and said, ‘Lieutenant, they’re dead.’”
Long silence here. Everyone in the school cafeteria looking at Vicari. Waiting. Eventually, he looked down. You didn’t hear him cry. You just saw him fight the emotion.
“They made the sacrifice. I was able to get up and walk away.”
Maybe that’s how my grandfather feels.
Maybe sometimes, the most remarkable stories just aren’t meant to be told.