Time to plan on going to the June Jam!!!
I was talking on the phone to an antique friend of mine named Pappy the other day. Yeah, the old fart is still alive and kickin’ (for those of you who’ve read about him here.) He doesn’t get around as much as he used to because he’s older than dirt, but he doesn’t really need to that much these days, due to his situation (which I’ll explain). He still has his sense of humor and incredible memory, which is SO full of precious information that every time we talk, I come away with something to remember and keep for myself. And this conversation wasn’t any different. He’s sorta like a Reader’s Digest magazine: You gain something from every issue you glance through, whether you want to or not. He’s now living with someone who had been his “lost love” for longer than many of you have even been alive.
When the phone first rang, I glanced at my caller ID and when I saw who it was, in my mind’s eye I could actually picture the old man with his droopy silver/gray moustache and his wry grin as he sat waiting for me to answer. I’ve missed the old fart. I just smiled and started the conversation with:
“Pappy! It’s been a while! How ya doin’?”
“Great, Bum! I was just thinkin’ about ya and thought I’d give you a shout.”
“How’s the weather there?”
“Fantastic! The grapes are lovin’ it!” (He actually lives in an old winery now!)
“How’s your woman?”
“She’s fine. Just a little tired every now and then.”
“I wouldn’t blame her, livin’ with you.”
“I SAID SHE’S PROBABLY TIRED OF YOUR SORRY ASS BEIN’ THERE!!!” (I’m not surprised he’s starting to have hearing issues.)
“LOL! You’re probably right about that."
“So, what made ya think to call me?”
“Well, actually me and Marie were talking earlier, and I remembered that you were always asking me about my war experiences for that book you were gonna write.”
“And something happened during the war that I never got around to mentioning to you.....something I thought ya might wanna hear.”
“Tell me about it.....”
And he went on with his story, which went something like this.......
It was mid-June,1944 and the whole world was at war. While our then friendly ally, Russia, kept the Germans busy in Eastern Europe with our support of supplies and munitions, the United States, England, Australia, and China had to deal with the Japanese in the Pacific. At the same time, the nations of England, Poland, Canada, Greece, Belgium, the Free French, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and the United States, combined their forces to attempt the largest beach landing in the history of mankind on the Normandy coast of France a week or so before, on June 6th (forever after to be known as “D-Day”).
Over 160,000 allied troops, and over 195,000 additional allied naval personnel in more than 7000 naval craft, were involved. Additionally, over 11,500 aircraft took part in the invasion. Nothing like this had ever even been tried before! Added to that number of allied assault troops, were 24,000 airborne paratroopers from the various nations who had been dropped into France behind enemy lines by the allied air forces prior to that day.
Now, just a few days after the allies broke free from their landing zones, a skinny little guy on a motorcycle, Corporal Donald “Pappy” Shelton (who was already a combat-veteran of the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns), found himself tearing through the French countryside on a Knucklehead Harley, NOT rushing off on a mission as he usually was, relaying messages back and forth between field commanders, but simply ripping up the dirt roads on his way to a temporary posting with a different company.
It was a refreshingly cool and beautiful late afternoon as the sun shot between the lush, green over-hanging foliage shading the picturesque country lane. He’d much rather have been home in the States cruising, instead of here where people shoot at you day after day. But he would have still been enjoying the ride, if he didn’t have to concentrate on the road as the Knuckle roared beneath him. Looking out for chuck-holes in the roads was an everyday thing back home in the 1940’s. But here, he had to watch out for bomb craters, wrecked vehicles, and dead bodies...the result of everything from dive bombing and strafing fighter-planes, to land-mines, hand-grenades, and tanks. On top of all that, German snipers took random pot-shots at anyone who walked or rode into their sites. This part of the country had seen many small skirmishes for the past few days. Then, with those short conflicts concluded, the allied advance would move on to another village, another farmer’s field, or another crossroad.... on its way to Germany.
Rounding a sharp bend in the dusty road, he almost flew over a twenty foot cliff into a ravine, but instead he laid the bike down. After picking it up, checking it out, and setting it right, he decided to take a short cigarette-break and sip some water from his canteen before he proceeded on his way. So, he threw down the kick-stand, turned, and wearily sat down side-ways on the seat as he lit one up, then returned the pack of smokes to his breast pocket.
No sooner had he done this, then he heard a sudden, “ ’Ello! .....’ow about one of those for me, mate?”
Startled, Pappy quickly turned his head and shoulders to see a solitary, bedraggled and bandaged British paratrooper casually leaning against a nearby tree.
It was SO sudden and unexpected, and being somewhat off balance, Pappy tumbled to the ground with a, “YO!!” as he fumbled for his side-arm. Then, when he realized he was safe and scrambled to his feet, he yelled as an accusation,
“WHY THE F&%K ARE YOU HERE?!” to the strange foreigner.
“Oh, king and country and all that bloody rot I suppose.” The Brit wearily replied.
“I mean, are you alone?! Where’s the rest of your unit?!”
“Dunno. Got separated. Got a smoke Yank?”
Pappy paused, then he dug his pack of Camels back out of his field jacket as he walked over and offered it to the British soldier. The exhausted man withdrew one, lit it from Pappy’s cigarette, took a long, slow drag, then sighed,
“Oh yessss” as he exhaled. Then he closed his eyes blissfully as he slid down the trunk of the tree to sit.
“Are you hit?”
“Just worn out mate. Been walking for hours and hours. I seem to have lost a little chunk of my upper cheek, but nothing I can’t live with I do believe. I’m sure it looks worse than it is.”
“Here, let me see it...”
Then after silently offering him water, and handing it to him, Pappy peered under the crude bandage the man had slapped on the side of his face before helping him to remove his helmet and get comfortable beneath the tree. While the man twisted open and took a sip from Pap’s canteen, Pappy fetched his first-aid kit from the Knuckle.
He learned that the man’s name was Reginald...Reggie for short. He was formerly a ballroom dancing instructor from London, and had been wandering around the countryside alone since yesterday afternoon when a German column separated him from the rest of his squad while Reggie was relieving himself inside a barn. His squad disappeared to who-knows-where, leaving Reggie on the wrong side of more than fifty Germans who were halted at the deserted farmhouse taking a break. So he climbed up into the loft and waited. When they finally left, Reggie climbed back down and found himself alone.
This morning, while wandering about and searching for a friendly face, he exchanged fire with a three-man German patrol, and got hit by a chunk of rock from a ricocheted bullet before he got away. Though the wound really wasn’t too bad, it seemed to bleed an awful lot. But Pappy soon had it stopped, cleaned-out, and dressed properly. He figured the wound would definitely leave a distinct scar, but that piece of stone would have taken out Reggie’s eye if it was any closer.
He then asked if Reggie would like to ride with him. But the man refused, saying that he’d be better off, and safer, finding his own forces on foot. Pappy then decided to open and light a can of Sterno to make some hot coffee from his ration kit.
For the next hour or so, these two brave young warriors from different countries rested and talked. They became close enough in that short time to briefly share their stories, and they spoke of life in general. They spoke of their points of view on everything that young men, particularly young men who are hovering so close to death, feel is really worthwhile to talk about. In other words...women.
They also spoke of the music that could be heard in the pubs of London, and in the malt-shops of Pittsburgh. And of the latest dances. Of the cars they owned and the cars they wanted to own. Of baseball and rugby. Of films they liked and films they hated. Of absolutely anything and everything except......the war.
Then as the summer’s evening sun began to set, and Pappy knew he should be moving on, he asked Reggie one last time if he would be alright as he climbed on his bike and kicked it over.
“Oh blimey mate! I’ll be as fine as fine can be. A little walk down the lane, and I’ll be hearing Sgt. Peabody bellowing orders at me. You just take care of YOUR self, would you?”
And with that, Pappy rode away, back to the war, and back to his own separate reality......
After a moment of silence I spoke up,
“That’s it? Was that the last you saw of him??”
“Yes it was. But my point is; in that brief time, I got to really know another human being, and to know him well. I learned his innermost fears...his desires...his longings...his goals. I got to know him SO well in fact, that if I were to run into him again ten years later, it would have been like we were old friends who had known each other forever. Of course that didn’t happen because, like I said, I never saw him again. But I’ve remembered and thought of Reggie often for the past sixty years."
Then he continued: “To further my point, how many people do we ALL miss out on knowing simply because we’re NOT thrown together in a war in France? Or we’re not stranded with them in an elevator in Chicago? How many really good people do we pass by every day, but NEVER get to know simply because we’re not forced into making the effort to at least simply say that first hello?”
We spoke for a few more minutes. Then, Pappy abruptly told me that he had to get off the phone because his dinner was ready. And, after promises of more and many future phone calls, we both hung up...him thinking of dinner with his woman, and me thinking of real friendships, some that might have been, and some that are now gone........
By coincidence as I write this, a very good friend of mine recently passed. At his funeral yesterday while the rent-a-preacher spoke, I thought of Pappy’s conversation with me, of how fleeting life is, and of the people whose friendships we truly value, yet we never even let them know we do. I thank God that MY friend made a point of telling me that the last time we talked...just a few days before he left us. And I know I’ll always remember his saying that, because it was the very last time I’ll ever hear his voice again.
As I sat there at his funeral, not even really paying attention to the preacher, I made a vow to myself that I’m going to make an effort to let people know just how much I’ve appreciated knowing them whenever possible. Because like him, it might be the last time I get the chance.........
So, thanks Buffalo. The same to you.....my friend.
And I’m also going to start saying “ ‘Ello!” to a lot of people I don’t even know YET. Who knows where that might lead?