Cumberland Times-News

Columns

November 9, 2013

Kids sometimes get the sanitized version

I already knew that Bill was dying before I met him.

His family said he hadn’t been told and didn’t know it, but judging from things he said when nobody else was listening, I suspect he was well aware of his impending collision with mortality.

People sometimes reflect on a past event and say it happened “in what seems like another lifetime.” I’m not sure how many lifetimes I’ve had so far, but the year I knew Bill was part of a lifetime I’d not have missed.

Younger men often strike up friendships with older men that go beyond friendship. Women sometimes do the same (in which case, it can be difficult to tell which one is acting as mother to the other).

One is more than a mentor and the other is more than a student, and there is a mutual affection that neither wants to admit. That’s how Bill and I were.

The late Frank Calemine was one of the older guys in my younger life. He was more-than-friend, not-quite-my father.

My own dad — who was Frank’s lifelong best friend — introduced me to fishing, and Frank took it to the next level by including all of nature.

“God must love us,” he often said, “to give us such a beautiful day.” He would tell me that even on cold, rainy days when we didn’t go hunting or fishing but stayed in the cabin or sat on the porch.

There were other older guys. The Sage and I both called his late father “Pop,” and I’d visit him even if his son wasn’t around.

We ate pies and drank coffee while he told me what his life had been like.

He was a veteran of World War II and had some great stories that usually had me laughing and shaking my head.

The only thing he ever said about being in the first-wave landing on D-Day was that as soon as he hit the beach, he grabbed a fistful of wet sand and covered up his lieutenant’s bars ... made him less of a target.

Fifty years after that, on June 6, 1994, I walked past The Sage’s office and saw Pop’s picture in the window: a handsome young man in his Army uniform.

On it was handwritten, “Thanks, Dad.”

Paul Crawford from Centerville, Pa., survived the same landing, and I loved him as much as I loved Pop. His D-Day story involved the hole that was put in his helmet by a German bullet.

I may have started filling the older-buddy role with a couple of younger guys.

One of them laughs at stupid jokes and other things I tell him (Regardless of what it is, you have to hear it for the first time, right?) and listens if I’m being serious.

When I tell him about women, I like to do so in the presence of women — hoping to get one or more of them to say, “Don’t listen to him! He’s just an old bachelor!”

To that, I reply, “Yes, and I intend to stay that way!” which always gets a chuckle out of my buddy, who faces an impending collision with matrimony.

Bill left us long before I was ready for it. The time spent with him, waiting for the inevitable, was both devastating and irreplaceable.

He was a World War II veteran but never told me about it. On the other hand, I never thought to ask him. Guys who are now my friends were still in Vietnam. What he would have said, I don’t know.

We talked about things like hunting, fishing and cars, and he had a love of vintage airplanes. I built model airplanes and bought magazines like “Air Classics” to use as reference material.

When I occasionally gave Bill some of them to read, it was like Christmas morning and I was Santa Claus.

I sat outside his hospital room, unable to go in. This was something new; I had yet to learn that you deal with such things by confronting them and doing what you have to do.

His wife said he didn’t recognize her or anyone else, but began to weep quietly when she told him I was near.

She gave me Bill’s shotgun, saying, “He’d want you to have this.” Then she showed me Bill’s deer rifle and said it was going to his grandson. I knew immediately what it was, and it was nothing at all like my rifle.

She said Bill was a Marine and made the Pacific landings during World War II. After the war, he stayed in the reserves, was called up during the Korean War and went in at Inchon.

I filed that away and later mentioned it to Bill’s daughter. She insisted that her dad wasn’t a Marine but had been in the Army Corps of Engineers and helped build the Al-Can Highway in Alaska.

None of this added up. For one thing (among others): If Bill spent the war as a roadbuilder in Alaska, what would inspire him to go deer hunting with an Arisaka rifle and not a Remington or a Winchester?

An Arisaka is what Japanese infantrymen carried, and it could be an unsafe, unreliable weapon for which ammunition is hard to find. Where did he get it, and how? What did it mean to him?

Then I considered my own family’s situation.

Uncle Abe Goldsworthy — whom I loved almost as much as I did my dad — was an Army medic during World War II. It was only late in his life, when he began talking to me about it, that I began to realize I had received a highly sanitized version of his military career when I was a youngster.

He said he and the other medics carried sidearms because some of the Germans liked to shoot them before they shot anyone else.

I never asked Abe if he had to use his pistol, and he never volunteered the information. Read into that whatever you like; I know what I think.

One day I mentioned my confusion about Bill to a buddy, a Vietnam veteran who every once in a great while tells me a little more.

A few days later, he said he had talked to a relative who was one of Bill’s friends.

“Bill was a Marine,” he said.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day, and a particularly good day to thank veterans for what they did. But don’t ask them what it was. If they want you to know, they will tell you.

All you really need to know is that they are responsible for your freedom.

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