I was walking on the treadmill the other morning at the gym* and listening to Sabaton. “Lost Battalion” came up, which sent my thoughts to WWI, then WWII, and Grandpa Carl. He covered a lot of Holland-Belgium on foot, and was one of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.
His office had various and sundry memorabilia in it, including a small, very simple framed item hanging on the wall. The frame was plain, dark-brown wood. It was perhaps eight inches long by five inches high. In it was a set of black and silver shoulder boards and a collar patch. And a neatly typed note card, smaller than a three-by-five index card. The card read “From an SS officer who no longer needed them.” If you looked closely, you could see brown stains on the silver and black. They hung where he could see them as he turned the light on and off when he came and went from the office.
The first time I ventured into his office (up a steep, narrow flight of stairs, one of two rooms under the roof, plus a tiny washroom), he told me about some of the things there. He nodded to the patches and just said, “After Malmedy we were a little mad.” I nodded in turn and that was that. He knew that I knew what he meant, and it needed no further discussion.
I sussed out very quickly that some topics were not open for discussion or query, as I’ve mentioned before. Bastogne and the Bulge, his first marriage. If he made an observation or said something, then I locked it into my memory because I assumed that he’d never tell the story again. The only time he talked in any detail about Bastogne, he spoke to himself and perhaps the TV, not to me. I sat where he couldn’t quite see me, slightly behind him to the left, and I’m not sure I breathed for ninety minutes. I sure as heck didn’t move.
I never asked if he regretted killing the SS officer. It wasn’t an appropriate question, and not mine to ask. That was between him and G-d. I suspect at the time the answer was “[rude word in GI] no!” Later? It was a different time, different place, and one he preferred not to return to.
If I could go back, or he were still alive, I still wouldn’t ask. I wish I’d gotten to see Saving Private Ryan with him, if only to hear him grouse about the stupidity of some of the things in the movie as compared to what he did. He said that the first fifteen minutes were the only time any film has ever come close to catching what D-Day was like. I’d ask about D-Day, and probably ask more about Market Garden and Wesel, but not the Bulge.
He was a Southern gentleman, for all that he grew up poorer than dirt in the Ozarks and considered Boot Camp to be gourmet dining (and the first time he’d had enough to eat in quite a while). Some things are not discussed around ladies, even ladies who like military history and study it. I tried to be that Southern lady, and did not press. Some questions are not mine to ask.
*Yes, I drove to the gym to go walking. It’s hard to find an incline around here otherwise. And I was safe from inattentive drivers, especially on a dark, rainy morning at 0630.