How We Lose Our History

An American soldier in England during World War II

An American soldier in England during World War II

My father is a great story-teller. He could entertain guests and family for hours on end with tales of trials and tribulations from his youth and glory days. I’ve heard more stories from him about his friends and family than I can ever possibly hope to remember. Some of the stories were quite long, and some were just brief anecdotes.

My mother often said she never knew whether to believe Dad’s stories, but he has such a way of engrossing you in the accounts of his life that you don’t really care — at least while he is telling the stories — what the truth was.

For instance, he told me he joined the U.S. Army in World War II after one of his friends was killed. That’s the story, but like so many other stories, it’s tied in to almost everything else he has done.

Dad came to Texas when he was a child. His father was a tailor living in a little village near Monterrey, but nearly all the kids in the family were actually born in Monterrey. I think my grandfather wanted his children to be able to say they were from Monterrey, so he took his wife to the city to have nearly all their children. Somewhere along the way, he moved the family to San Antonio and settled in a house in what is now called La Villita. I’ve been to the house. My father and I walked along San Antonio’s famous RiverWalk and he told me about episodes from his life.

When he grew up, he retained his Mexican citizenship, but after his American friend was killed in the war Dad decided he wanted to finish what his friend had begun. So he volunteered to join the American army. He had to get permission from the Mexican government to join the U.S. Army. “Why do you want to join the American army?” they asked him at the consulate. “Mexico is at war with the Germans, too. You can join our army.”

True, but Dad wanted to honor his friend’s memory, so the Mexican government relented and gave him permission. Dad took his permission slip to the Principal’s Office — I mean, he went to the U.S. Army recruiting station and at some point was put on a bus. They took him and dozens of other men down the road to some nameless camp and had them all processed. Finally, when the men were about to put on their first army uniforms, a sergeant came into the dressing area to administer their oath. So there they stood, sixty men in their underwear, swearing to serve the United States with their blood, sweat, and — if necessary — lives.

“Men,” the sergeant said proudly, “You’re now in the U.S. Army. You’re in for the duration and six months.”

Someone in the back of the room yelled out, “How long is the duration?”

Up until that time Dad had done various things. I’m not sure of what all those things were, but one of the things he does talk about is how he used to sing with some big bands in night clubs. I don’t mean the world famous big bands like Glenn Miller’s Band. Back then, every city had big bands, and San Antonio was no different. My brother inherited some of that aspiration as he’s been singing with little bands ever since he was a teenager. His bands had memorable names like Ten O’Clock Road, um, something else, something else, and most recently Karisma.

But I was talking about Dad, wasn’t I?

So, Dad went to boot camp. They used live fire exercises to get the men used to working in dangerous environments. I don’t know what they do today, but Dad said at one point in his training the platoons were taken to a firing range and ordered to crawl under barbed wire obstacles while real machine guns fired real ammunition over their heads. Some of the men panicked. One man stood up and tried to run away. Dad tried to grab him and pull him down, but by the time they hit the dirt the other man had been hit by one or more rounds and was dead.

They stopped the exercise at that point, and Dad said later one of the DIs (drill instructors) came up to him and said, “That was a very brave thing you did today, but it was stupid. You could have been killed yourself.”

“I know,” Dad replied. “But I just reacted.”

“Just reacting can get you killed,” the DI told him. “Remember that.”

Dad went on to become a medic and he served in both the European theater and the Pacific theater. “How did you manage to do that?” I asked him one day after he explained the point system to me. You see, we were technically only involved in the conflict for about 3-1/2 years, from December 1941 until Summer 1945 in Europe, give or take, plus another few months in the Pacific. Soldiers and sailors were rotated in and out of action on a point system.

But you could lose points if you misbehaved. Dad said he went AWOL while he was in France.

“Why did you do that?” I asked. I’ve seen enough war movies to have a permanently etched vision of WW-II France looking like a bombed out devastation. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go AWOL in a land where people were scrambling for food and German soldiers might lie hiding behind every bush (sorry — Hollywood just had that effect on me as a kid).

Turns out, there was a girl. Back in England. And she was expecting Dad’s child. He had been stationed in England for something like two years. I don’t recall exactly how long. But he was there long enough to be terrorized by a monster and to fall in love.

The monster story was kind of funny. Dad was assigned to a little hospital somewhere in England and he had to pull a rotation standing guard duty or something (he might have shifted classifications or something, or maybe he was just embellishing the facts). So, one night he was driving around the outer perimeter of the compound in a Jeep. Despite the occasional air raid, he had become pretty comfortable living in England. It wasn’t like German soldiers were leaping out at you from behind every bush.

So it was late at night, the whole area was blacked out because of the threat of air raids, and Dad was driving along the fence when all of a sudden he heard this awful growling. “Rowrrr!” He stopped the Jeep and turned on the spotlight. He looked around and couldn’t see anything, but the growling continued and rose in volume. It was unnerving, and since he couldn’t identify the source, Dad went back to the duty shack to report the incident.

The sergeant on duty didn’t believe Dad’s story, so he insisted on driving back to the same location. The growling had become more like roaring, but they couldn’t find the source. The fence was rattling and shaking and the sound was just plain unnerving. Eventually, Dad and the sergeant went back to the duty shack and shared a spot of whiskey to calm their nerves.

In the morning, a representative from the local mental hospital dropped by to inform the camp that one of their patients had gotten loose during the night, and would the soldiers please keep an eye out for him. He wasn’t very coherent.

Air raids were more dangerous than escaped mental paitents. I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest when I was a teenager about someone who dialed a wrong number in England during the Blitz. The caller and callee struck up a friendship that lasted for several months. One night, making his regular phone call, the man got a busy signal. He knew his friend would be waiting on his call, but her line never went live again. For several days he tried to call her, but had no luck. Finally, he called the telephone company and explained his concern. The operators refused to help him. But he persisted and eventually one operator relented. “We’re not supposed to divulge this type of information,” she told him, “But the house you’re trying to reach took a direct hit. I don’t know if there were any survivors.”

Dad’s English girlfriend lived close to London, as I recall. He met her while he was stationed at that hospital. They spent a fair amount of time together and eventually became intimate. And then D-Day came and Dad went to Fance in the second or third wave (after the beaches had been taken). As the Allies advanced toward Germany, he exchanged letters with his girlfriend and occasionally got to make some phone calls. One day, he couldn’t reach her, and his mail was returned unopened.

Dad naturally became very concerned, and he struggled to learn what had happened. Had she dumped him? He had friends who had struck up wartime romances where the girls met other men and moved on. But he wasn’t ready to let go. So, when he failed to get permission to take some leave, Dad just up and left his post and made his way back to England. There he learned the worst: his girlfriend had been killed in an airstrike.

He turned himself in and was charged with desertion. I forget all the details, but he said that one of the men working on his case — either the prosecutor or defender — had a connection with the Eddie Slovak trial. Slovak was the only American soldier ever convicted and sentenced to death for desertion during World War II. His trial was controversial and is still regarded by some historians today as a show trial.

Dad’s circumstances were not terribly extenuating, but the court showed him some compassion and mercy. They stripped him of his rank and points and sent him back to the front lines. I guess we just needed our medics more than we needed another Eddie Slovak. I don’t know.

But Dad went through the rest of the European war and was promptly put on a ship bound for the pacific after the Germans surrendered. Most of his friends went back home to the United States. The closest Dad came to seeing home that year was sailing through the Gulf of Mexico to Panama.

He told me an interesting story about Panama, but I guess I’ll just have to leave that for another time.

I’ve asked Dad to record his memories on tape many times. “I don’t care how accurate your memories are,” I’ve said a thousand times. “Let me write down your memoirs. You were a part of history. Don’t you want your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know what you did for this country?”

Well, Dad just doesn’t like tape recorders, I guess. So he, like millions of other Americans who contributed to our history in so many ways, will pass into the night, remembered by only the few of us who knew him. Each year he tells me about another old friend who has died, someone who was “a great boxer”, “a singer”, “an amazing soldier”, “a song writer”…people whose names and faces won’t be remembered after all those who loved and knew them have followed them into the next great adventure.

One wonders how many other stories have been lost through the ages because fathers and mothers didn’t share with their children and grandchildren all the rich memories they accumulated. We are a literate society. We have the means now to preserve what we have done more easily than any generation in history.

And we are losing our history with each passing day. All that future generations will have to remember us by will be the testimonies of propagandists and journalists. I’m not really comfortable with that.