I have no recollection of my dad reading stories to me from a book when I was a child, but he did tell me stories verbally. The older I got, the more descriptive they became – about his poor, fatherless boyhood; his teenage years smoking and hanging out with the other kids wearing zoot suits and listening to jazz; his courtship of my mom when they traveled to New York City to listen to Frank Sinatra.
As I got older, my dad talked more openly of his experiences as a paratrooper during WWII, and the wild stories of training camp, and then fighting in France and Germany.I never thought about how these stories set a moral tone for me, a tale of life’s lessons, but now, looking back, I realize that my life’s view was definitely influenced by my dad’s stories.
THE PARATROOPER SPEAKS
We didn’t really know what we were doing, despite the training we received for a few months in Georgia. I mean, we were wild boys, really, most of us just 18. Full of aggression, cocky as hell, anxious to get to Europe and kill those Krauts. That’s how we talked about it – “Kill Krauts!” Of course, that’s how we were trained to think of our job, once we got to the other side of the ocean.
I wanted to be in the navy – that was my dream, or if that didn’t work, to become an air force pilot. But I discovered something about myself that I hadn’t known for the first 17 years of my life – I was color blind.
I had had no idea that I was missing reds and blues and greens.
But the navy, and the air force, diagnosed my disorder after their preliminary tests, so I went for the next best challenge: paratrooping.
Another thing I didn’t know about myself until I started to train as a paratrooper – I was acrophobic – scared of heights. I kept that secret to myself during the entire time I fought in WWII.
I don’t think the pilots quite knew what they were doing either, color blind or not. They’d shout ‘JUMP NOW’ to the paratroopers as we flew high above a foreign land, and so many of my buddies got stuck in trees. Some died that way, because they’d fall in the middle of a forest.
Happened to me several times – nothing scarier than falling, hard, on top of a tremendous tree, heavy white fabric covering you, while the tree branches pierced you as you tried desperately to get out of the shoot without suffocating.
One time, I was stuck good, frantically cutting the white shoot off me, so relieved to get the heavy cloth away from my face.
But the first thing I saw scared me so much, I wet my pants.
A German soldier stood tall, at the base of the tree, with his gun aimed right at my head.
I knew I was dead. My life was gone, at 18 years of age.
I closed my eyes, heard the shot. Waited for heaven, or hell, or whatever would come next.
Once I realized I was still breathing, I put my hand out and felt my chest, my arms, my head. Then I opened my eyes.
The German soldier was down, dead, below me. An American paratrooper stood five yards away, his gun still pointing at the spot.
He saved my life.
But that poor German kid. Couldn’t have been older than me. By the luck of the draw, he was dead.
And I wasn’t.