Real American Hero

On Saturday, my mom went to see my grandfather at his nursing home, played him some Glenn Miller and Dave Brubeck, held his hand for a while, until he closed his eyes. He died during the night.

My grandfather lived a Greatest Generation life. His dad was a deadbeat journalist, his parents divorced shortly before the Great Depression, and his mom made ends meet when she could with secretarial work and sent my grandfather and his brother to live with their uncles, Wyoming cowboys out by Wind River Canyon, when she couldn’t. He played soccer in high school and was a football kicker, and went down the street to UCLA and to officer training school soon thereafter. He was a calm, blonde, California golden boy (his parents were both Swedish-American), and he had a gift for talking to anybody that lasted for the rest of his life, always interested in other people’s stories and in how they connected to his own.

One story involved booking Nat King Cole and his trio for a gig at the weekly campus variety show that my grandfather ran his first couple years at UCLA. The show time came and the band was nowhere to be found. My grandfather went outside and found the three members of the trio struggling up with an enormous double bass up some of the campus’s famous steps, cursing up a storm.

My grandfather was less successful booking Groucho Marx when he encountered him in the bathroom of the movie theater where he worked part-time as an usher; it went something like “Mr. Marx, would you be interested in appearing in the UCLA showcase?” “No, but would you be interested in appearing in the urinal showcase? It’s going to be starting right over there.”

My grandfather said that he had two main lucky breaks in life: walking into the class at UCLA where he met my grandmother, and being pulled off the minefield on an Italian hillside when he was thrashing around after stepping on one mine, before he could step on another. In both cases, it was easy to see what he meant– if he’d been assigned to a different section of the sophomore Survey of English Literature class, or if the medic assigned to his unit the day he stepped on the mine had been less cool-headed–  things would be very different. There, but for the grace of God, doesn’t go me.

He had been assigned to lead a company up a mountain: taking out a machine gun nest was their main objective. But they came under heavy mortar fire and holed up in a wine cellar for a couple days, waiting and waiting- he wrote his first full-length play, called “Main Objective,” about a group of soldiers sitting around in a wine-cellar several years later, and a family legend holds that the story was stolen for a Hollywood movie that didn’t make any money and closed after a few weeks, though I haven’t been able to find any mention of it.

An LA paper interviewed him shortly before he got injured.

After he stepped on the mine, the shattered bones developed gangrene and they cut off the leg right beneath the knee. He said he woke up in the hospital after the amputation and thought, “well, I guess I’m not going to die in the war.” He made it through seventy years with various artificial legs- when a loudmouth approached him in a bar and told him he drank like a man with a wooden leg one time, he could knock on the leg to show that it was, indeed, wooden.

He was a high school teacher for a little while, and worked in advertising for a little while, and then back to school to become a college drama professor. The large public university in the South he taught at for decades is now famous for its drama department, and he taught a couple of future movie stars over the years, but mostly just got future teachers or accountants to have fun putting on a show of Alice in Wonderland or Saki’s short stories or English farces. He told me once that what he loved about the theater was that it was different every time, that the audience was a part of every show, and the most well-thumbed of his books when he moved him and my grandmother out of their apartment a few years ago was  a book of hundreds of drama games and exercises, with notes on almost all of them describing ways of changing or extending the game or doing it differently.

He retired in his 60s, to have time to write, and that was I think a struggle and a disappointment in some ways, though I read a children’s play he wrote from this time I liked a lot. But he and my grandmother moved from place to place and state to state, interested in the Pueblo Indians one year and Appalachian crafts the next, until they eventually settled close by my parents. In his 70s and 80s, he started teaching again, mostly at senior centers where he would teach classes on memory, which was a new interest of his, combined with some of the old drama games. When he was 87 and 88 he decided to learn 50 songs, which he did while pacing in the stairwell of their apartment building, and then he rented an hour of studio time and made a CD of himself singing twenty of the songs, pretty tunefully.

Soon thereafter he had a problem with his artificial leg– it was irritating the skin on his stump, which wouldn’t quite heal. He was off his leg and in a wheelchair, and almost immediately a lot of things started to go wrong for him, cognitively and physically.

He loved reading obituaries, not because he liked thinking about death, but because, as he said, it was the only place in the newspaper that they put the whole story together from start to finish. This is, of course, not the whole story, but just the bits and pieces which I knew or heard him tell, like the day in Wyoming when they were young (five and seven maybe?)  he and his brother decided they would hunt some rabbits with bow and arrow, and hit one, who writhed in pain on the ground until one of the cowboy uncles came out and shot it, and told them never to do that again. But like the theater, a story is different every time you tell it.

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