April 24, 2008

But for the Grace of an Old, Army Jeep

A few Sundays ago I had the opportunity to take our new car out for a spin. As I accelerated down one of the main highways just outside of town, I felt good, happy actually, and I hadn’t felt that way in a while. With a cup of steamy 7-11 Coffee in my hand and some jazz playing on the car stereo, I hastened past a crude, cardboard sign which simply read “Car Show.” An arrow drawn in magic marker led the way.

I thought to myself that this would be a good place to take the kids later on in the morning. My wife wasn’t feeling well and I felt that the little ones shouldn't hang around the house and waste the day. Then, I caught a peek at some of the cars pulling in the lot where the event was to take place.

Funky notes from the tune “Sponge” by Randy Brecker got my foot tapping and I sped on past the ancient, re-born vehicles filing into the car show’s venue which was a church parking lot. My new Malibu ran smoothly, quiet, and I savored my artificial world crafted by General Motors and my imagination. Everything beyond the windshield was a movie. Pedestrians and automobiles alike were mere extras to be seen and not interacted with. I pressed the accelerator and trusted that the police were not on the alert for speeders so early in the morning.

An older jalopy which caught my eye in the queue of car show vehicles stayed with me in my mind. More of a horse carriage with a motor than a family car, I mused that the scenery surrounding such a machine in the year it was likely manufactured was starkly different than in today’s world. My dad was an eighteen year old kid fighting in Italy when this thing originally cruised around the highways. Detroit in early 1940’s had shut down auto production to produce tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles for the war effort. My guess at the actual age of the car was based on instinct and a wish that I could peek backward in time to that era; maybe visiting my father before I was "born".

To see my dad in person wearing his uniform as he was about to be shipped off to North Africa in August of 1943 would have been spectacular, to say the least. There’s a photo of my youthful father clad in his army trousers and button down shirt, as he posed on the rooftop of his Brooklyn home before being shipped overseas. His face hinted at an innocent enthusiasm as he was only vaguely aware of the horror and death he’d witness in the fighting due east. I often wondered what it would have been like if I encountered him before his departure. These fantasies occurred to me often over the years as I gazed into his confident eyes portrayed in that image. Would I be able to interact with him? Would he understand that he’d survive this conflict and marry a beautiful woman have six children and stay married for fifty two years? Would it be necessary to warn him to keep his head down and to ignore the agony of multiple bullet wounds?

My daydream almost got the best of me and I slowed down to keep pace with traffic. I ejected the CD and tuned in to the local talk radio station. “Religion on the Line,” a local radio program, has been on the air for ages and I listened in out of a sense of nostalgia for the days when going to church was a big event in my family. I am more spiritual now than religious. My mind harkens to God and then my cynicism foils the attempts organized religion makes to subdue me. Though I am a sinner, I lead a moral existence and teach my children to be good people. The show’s hosts, a rabbi and a deacon, both spoke of the Pope’s visit to New York City. It’s hard to fend off my Catholic guilt and not sit up straight and think pure thoughts when the pope is mentioned.

Again, my mind turned to that antique car and my dad. Indoctrinated by Dominican nuns in Catholic school, my father’s loyalty to the Franciscans was fostered when a young priest from that order administered Last Rites to him on the battlefield after he was severely wounded. Coincidently, the priest was once assigned to a church my father attended in Manhattan when he was a boy.

After a fierce battle in the Italian town of Velletri, this priest came to my dad’s side shortly following a pair of POWs from the German Wehrmacht who almost tossed my unconscious father into a mass, temporary grave. They thought he was dead; and, when these two soldiers (older men who were conscripts from Poland) lifted him on a stretcher they fashioned from a door, my dad awoke, frightening them, and they dropped the door and left him where they found him. He’d have been buried moments later by the bulldozer covering the trench with mountains of soil had they actually dumped his body into the pit.

It was fluke, perhaps divine intervention, that two men from the same town, a soldier and a priest, met during wartime thousands of miles away in Europe. Yet the young cleric’s compassion inspired my dad, made him hold on, and ultimately led him home.

Later in the day, I took my son to that car show. My wife was still ailing and my daughter felt a bit under the weather too. Inside, there were some vintage military vehicles; some Willys Jeeps and an old Army truck from World War II.

Did Grandpa ride in one of these when he was in the army?” my son asked.

Yeah, he did, actually.” I answered.

In fact, the only time he time did get a lift in a jeep was when he was heading home. After two months in an army field hospital in Rome, he was ordered back to the states for discharge from the service. His wounds were extensive and he couldn’t handle a rifle. The young soldier argued that he wanted to stay and fight along side his buddies; but, he was no longer fit for duty. All of his friends were eventually killed in action among the hedge rows in France; and, my dad weeps for them to this day.

He is more than sixty years older than when he fought in battle and the pain of war persists. His hearing is deteriorating due to a German bullet which spliced his left ear canal, a fragment of that round remains in the base of his skull today, his arm and hand became arthritic from a another bullet wound, and horrific memories haunt his dreams and waking moments.

Using my camera phone, I snapped a photo of my nine year old son who wore the slight grin of a child who was proud of a secret; that his grandpa rode in an army Jeep just like the one he was posing in front of. For a kid, that's awesome.

In the back of the lot were the older autos, including the one I noticed earlier which caused me to fall into this semi-Somnambulistic state. Dark in color, very long with side running boards, this model was actually built in the 1930s. Still, I was accurate in guessing its age. Nevertheless, I was grateful that the mere sight of this restored motor vehicle got me reminiscing. There but for the grace of God, and a kindly parish priest turned Army chaplain, that I was able to enjoy this event with my son. My father could have been buried alive and this fine day with me strolling in the sunlight with my boy at my side never would have happened.

My entire life was owed to a gentle priest who reached down for a soldier’s weakened, bloodied hand and coaxed him to find God and survive.

After an afternoon of reflection, I no longer felt the urge to sneak back in time to caution my soldier-father about the impending danger of battle anymore. Things turned out well in spite of the war and his close brush with death. That young Franciscan priest became his lifelong inspiration, influencing many decisions which brought him to this point in his life where he frequently calls and asks "When am I going to see my grandchildren?"

On that glorious Sunday I stepped closer to God in the parking lot of a Roman Catholic Church, with my young boy holding my hand, thinking about my dad’s first ride in the back of a jeep, and about how gently the Lord guides our lives.

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