It’s Memorial Day, and he lays out his uniform on the bed. World War II: Ninth Division, 47th Infantry Regiment, Second Battalion, F Company. He curses as he struggles to pin on the ribbons-the old spike-and-screw hardware is stiff and unworkable. And he has mislaid the little wire that holds his uniform shirt collar down and, even though he made a special trip to an Army and Navy store, sure he would find one, he didn’t. So now he’s concerned that the collar ends will flap up. We solve the problem with double-sided scotch tape.
The uniform is more than 50 years old, but he can still get into it. Sure, he has to suck in his gut to button the Eisenhower jacket, and the pants have a big “V” of new material in the front where he has them let out to the max, but if you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t notice.
Honestly, I’m feeling a little embarrassed about the notion of walking down the street with this old guy in a World War II uniform. But the fact is that I love him, this man who came so late into my life, and I want to be with him, today especially. Not that I’m going to watch him march in a parade or even take part in a ceremony for veterans. No, his is a one-man Memorial Day observation. He will do what he does every Memorial Day: He will take the No. 5 bus up Riverside Drive to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, where for a few moments he will remember “Grandma.”
They met in basic training in Fort McClellan, Ala., in September 1944: He-a skinny, 16-year-old Jewish kid from Brooklyn who had run away from home and lied about his age and even his name to get into the service-and Grandma, a burly, red-haired 19-year-old farm boy from Murfreesboro, Tenn. His real name was Frank, but the other Southern boys in the squad dubbed him Grandma because of his many stories about his pipe-smoking grandmother and her tales of the Tennessee “hollers.”
At the monument, the old soldier circles around to the back, where he can be alone. The edifice hasn’t been kept up; there is litter and crumbling stone and the stench of misuse. He has written to his assemblyman complaining about the conditions, but nothing has been done.
Now he stands facing the base of the rounded structure, his head bowed, his arms dangling, his hands clasped in front of him.
Is he remembering the beginning, back in basic training, where all the members of the platoon except him were Southerners and didn’t take to the Yankee in their midst? Remembering the “tricks” they played on him-stuffing sand in his rifle or cutting a button off his uniform to get him in trouble just before an inspection? He had accepted it as a hazing ritual at first, but then, after a particularly nasty K.P. duty resulted, he confronted them. After all, he might be skinnier than the rest of them, but he wasn’t a wimp. He had known the streets of Brooklyn.
He demanded to know which of them had done it. When one stepped up and said, “I did, Yankee-what are you going to do about it?”, the scrawny kid from Brooklyn did what was appropriate back home: He punched him in the mouth and promptly took a beating for his trouble.
It became a sport every evening for each of the others to take turns at beating the Yankee. That is, until it was Grandma’s turn. The quiet, red-haired boy from Tennessee had hung back until the last and, finally, was forced to admit that he didn’t want to fight. Goaded by the others, the big farm boy took some half-hearted swings, endured the punches of his opponent, but then, to the noisy disapproval of the group, walked away.
It was the beginning of their friendship. During those long days on the troop ship, he and Grandma played gin rummy and swapped stories of home, the kid from Brooklyn and the one from Tennessee-the only company each needed.
In a frozen foxhole in the Ardennes, they shook with cold and fear, huddling together for warmth in that bitterest of winters: three days and three nights without sight of another human being, with no sound other than the cracking of ice-laden branches, unsure if it was the enemy hiding there in that frozen forest.
On this peaceful holiday, quiet except for the steady hum of traffic on the West Side Highway, maybe what he hears is the sudden, terrifying, ear-blasting noise of mortars hitting so close that the concussion lifted them off the ground, showering them with frozen chunks of dirt as he and Grandma clung to each other. When silence fell that night, still crouching in that frozen hole, they heard German voices on all sides and realized that they were surrounded. Before it was light, they crawled, belly down in the snow, toward the forest.
Is he trembling now with the memories of those days-weeks, really-that they wandered lost, without food or shelter, hiding at night in deadfalls or burrowing into the snow like animals? Frozen bodies-Americans and Germans, no enemies in death-were like downed trees half-buried in snow. They made a cracking sound as he turned them, searching for food, weapons, ammunition.
But most likely, on this Memorial Day as on every other before and since, he is recalling their last moment together. Giddy with the realization that the war was almost over and that they had survived after house-to-house combat across Germany, they found the duty easy, searching the elegant villas south of Munich for hidden Nazi bigwigs. They joked along with the others as they rummaged throughout a lavishly furnished home, discovering a real bathroom with a forgotten luxury-a flush toilet. He and Grandma laughed about who would go first, in their high spirits mimicking an old vaudeville routine. “After you, Mr. Gallagher.” “No, after you, Mr. Sheen.” Grandma went ahead while his friend shouted “advice” through the closed door. Then-crazily-the door against which he’d been leaning flew off, throwing him across the room and knocking him unconscious. Thankfully, he didn’t see what had happened to Grandma, didn’t know until later that his friend had been blown apart by that booby-trapped toilet.
Now, he stands silently, head bowed before the crumbling memorial. At last he straightens, takes a step back, squares his shoulders and executes a crisp salute, holding it for a long moment.
When he turns to face me, I’m not surprised to see that his face is wet with tears. I take his hand and, in the melancholy light of an overcast sky, we head back along Riverside Drive.
When we get home, he will unpin the ribbons from his Eisenhower jacket and lay them neatly in the plastic box he keeps on the shelf in the closet. He will remove his uniform and hang it carefully in the moth-proof garment bag, as he has for 57 years now, ready for the next Memorial Day, when he will once again pay a private tribute to his long-lost friend.