I spent a good part of my growing up years wondering who my father was. There weren't as many questions concerning my mother, and perhaps that's because as the years have gone by, I have become her. But that topic is for another time. Today I want to reflect on my dad. His name was Charles, but he never went by that. He used his middle name, Keith. I love that name, and I gave it to my son for his middle name, and he has given it to his.
He was learning to become a meat cutter when the war broke, requiring him to take a sabbatical of three years, two months and nine days. In fact, when the recruiter asked him what he wanted to do, he told him he'd like to cut meat. He ended up as a gunner instead. After the war he worked on a drilling rig for awhile, but meat was in his blood. One day he answered an ad in the newspaper for a meat cutting position, and that is what he did until he retired 40 some years later.
I remember as a little girl visiting my dad while he was working and seeing the large sides of beef hanging from the hooks in the cooler. It was nothing for him to lift those heavy slabs by himself and lay them across the butcher blocks of the meat room. He wore this thing that looked a bit like a garter belt around his waist to help his back, and I wondered if it was hard for him to pick up such heavy stuff. I think it was, because I remember him being in the hospital quite a few times for hernia surgeries. I knew his back hurt him because of the war. But there was so little I knew about his time in Europe with the 82nd. I did find out that he flew in gliders and that one time he hurt his back pretty bad when they crashed. That was all he'd say. It was years later, after the fiftieth anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, D-Day, the stories that had been bottled up all those years began to come out. The crash had occurred while flying over enemy lines into Normandy.
After spending several weeks in a hospital in England he would be sent back to his unit, only to fly once again, this time into Holland. He described that particular flight to me in detail years later. There were three gliders that took off together that day. They hit twenty miles of flak after which the gliders on either side of him went down. Shrapnel came through the front and went under the flak pad where the pilot and copilot sat. As they came in for a landing, this was how he described it, "So we came in, landed, and tore out some barbed wire fences. The pilot jumped over a cement watering trough, went through a ditch and tore off the wheels. There were skids on the bottom of the glider so that you can drop the wheels before you ever land, and you land on the skids. But they stop you so quick that the tail pops up and you ride along on those skids on the nose. Anyway, we had a pretty good landing." Umm, pretty good landing?
After Holland he would go on to the Battle of the Bulge and then would eventually be a part of the occupation forces in Berlin. Years later, long after he had retired, it would be discovered that not only had he injured his back in Normandy, he had most likely broken it. Cancer eventually took residence in that part of his spine, and he would travel to the Veterans Hospital in Buffalo for infusions to strengthen his back.
I felt like I finally knew my dad, a man of great courage and inner strength. I knew that he discovered what he liked to do, did it well and kept at it even though pain was his constant companion. I knew him as a patriot and a lover of his country. And I knew him as a father who loved his wife and children. I would ask him years later why he kept those things to himself all those years. "I wanted to protect you," he said. "So many of those I trained and fought with never made it home." I wanted to know, I told him. Even as a child, I wanted to know. And perhaps that's why one day he piled us into the station wagon and took us to a movie. It was a black and white called "D-Day." I didn't understand very much of it then, but years later I would. And long after sitting in that darkened theater with my dad and brothers, I understood that he must have known. He just couldn't say the words.
In one of his letters back home, he wrote the following:
July 12, 1945
"There's a little story that goes with our Company commander. His name was Captain Mentlick, a newspaper man from New York City. He was a man if there ever was one. He gave us every break we had coming. On the morning that we jumped off for Normandy, with tears in his eyes, he said something like this. 'Well men, this is it. Let's hope that we can all come back. God bless all of us.' Don't believe that any of the fellows have ever forogtten that little speech."
In the same way, I will never forget the words my dad spoke to me as we sat at that little kitchen table back in 1999. God bless you Dad. God bless all of us.