Friday, June 13, 2008

A Tribute to My Dad (part 2)

This is the second installment of my writings about my father.

When Dad was a kid, my Grandfather worked at the local electrical generation plant. Eventually he became the plant supervisor and toward the end of his career oversaw all the electrical plants in the region. He was also a musically talented man that was somewhat renowned for being able to play the guitar while singing and balancing a chair on his chin. Like many others in the town, Grandpa was ordered into the military, where he became a naval officer. This meant that during the war, he was away from the family for very long stretches. As the oldest son, Dad had to fill some of his father’s roles during those years.

Dad rarely told us about the war. He said that he went through many horrible experiences that he didn’t want us to have to think about. In his later years, Dad occasionally let slip bits and pieces of these experiences. Dad had lifelong psychological scars from what he felt was harsh and unloving treatment by his mother. Looking back, it is likely that some of this was probably due to her attempt to manage the harsh situation in which she found herself as a young mother living in a war zone, trying to make ends meet and keep her family safe while her husband was away serving in the military.

Everyone was trained that when the air raid siren sounded, they were to run for the nearest bomb shelter. Sometimes this happened in the middle of the night. The lights were usually doused in the shelters and people were required to be as silent as possible. Anyone separated from family members during the sprint for the shelter would often not know until hours later whether their loved ones were safe and/or alive or not.

For a period of time, Dad served on the school’s fire crew that was to extinguish fires at the building if it was bombed. Sometimes Dad was required to sleep at the school on the floor of the storage room without blankets. Once when the air raid siren sounded in the middle of the night, Dad automatically hopped into his clothes and began running for the school, which was many blocks away. He rounded a corner and found himself in a surreal setting where carpet bombing was systematically leveling every third building. He said it was like he was in a dream. He stood rooted in place, unable to move, but also feeling like an observer that was not personally threatened by the events he was watching.

Suddenly a huge chunk of metal ripped through the trunk of a century-old tree that was just a few feet from Dad. The tree fell in the other direction, but Dad suddenly realized this was reality. He tore out of there and dove into the nearest bomb shelter, where he huddled in a corner in the dark among faceless strangers. He shook for hours as he heard and felt the percussion of the bombs. He didn’t know if he’d ever see his family again.

There were no toys for the children. But Dad and his friends could easily find firearms and munitions to play with in the nearby woods. Throughout his life, Dad was forever taking things apart, improving them, and putting them back together. This skill allowed him to become an expert in weaponry. He particularly specialized in making British ammo work in German firearms and vice versa. But one day, a kid across town that Dad considered to be a much better expert, accidentally blew himself up. That scared Dad so badly that he put his collection in a box, went out into the woods, and buried it.

As the war drew out, provisions of all kinds became scarce. Everyone that wasn’t a privileged NAZI loyalist frequently went hungry. Travel became impossible as the infrastructure was increasingly torn up and fuel became unobtainable. Communication broke down. My Grandmother escaped imprisonment for insulting the family of an SS officer only because a family friend that worked at the police station pulled some strings to get her released.

My Grandfather’s ship was destroyed as it was leaving the harbor in Helsinki Finland. He was the only survivor because a quirk of fate had caused him to uncharacteristically arrive late at the dock. He stood on the dock and watched helplessly as his comrades died. Late in the war, my Grandfather was captured by the Allies. He was a prisoner of war in southern Germany for a few months until he was released along with many other prisoners.

This left Grandpa hundreds of miles from home with no means in an occupied, war-torn country with a devastated transportation infrastructure. He spent months working his way home, walking when necessary, and hitching rides by truck or on the short rail distances that had been restored. Finally, he was able to meet up with his family over 100 miles from their home. The circumstances were somewhat miraculous, given that communication between them was virtually non-existent and travel for the family was nearly impossible.

By the end of the war, my Dad, who was still several years below driving age, had begun his training as a Navy cadet. By then the Germans were tapping ever younger and older males to serve in the military, since their young adult males had been decimated. Thankfully, the end of the war stopped short Dad’s military career.

After the war, Dad and Grandpa kept the family alive by riding bicycles out into the country, finding farmers for whom they could work and that would pay them in produce, working several days, and then riding back home. They had to be careful to avoid checkpoints where occupying soldiers would confiscate their earned goods to be used in mass distribution programs.

Dad and Grandpa would frequently do electrical work, retrofitting British light bulbs to work in German fixtures and wiring buildings with very meager supplies. One time a farmer paid them with a pig. Not having been involved with livestock and having no access to firearms, they wondered how to kill it. They put a large spike in a board and whacked the pig in the head. It squealed, jumped around and bled. Dad had to hold the critter down while his father bludgeoned it to death. The meat was a Godsend, but it was such a horrible experience that Dad avoided eating pork for decades.

Thanks to the Marshall Plan, life gradually improved for Dad’s family. But the last half of the war and the first few years after the war were a pretty hardscrabble existence for them.

Next time I’ll write about my father, the philosopher.

No comments: