Third in a Series about Talking Old Soldiers. This one from a nursing home in Fort Wayne, IN.
On the way down the hall to the rehab gym, I find Uncle Adolph stuck in a corner with his broom again. Usually, you can just say good morning, take his elbow, turn him away from the wall and he’ll keep on sweeping. Something about his eyes, he sees spiders everywhere and tries to get them all. But today he takes my arm when I reach for his and says, Sonny I could stand a cup of joe, I surely could. As you know, there are unwritten rules for anywhere you work, deals cut without any kind of written protocol, and this is one of mine. I’ll step outside the boundaries of my job description, no problem, I’ll answer a nurse’s call bell if you need me to, clean up the incontinent and change their sheets, and I’ll still make my productivity quota even if I have to stay late to do it. But the payback is this. Stop the day in the middle when the opportunity arises and sit for a coffee with an old soldier. I mean, like so many of the old vets, my dad never talked about any of this, so I get it where I can.
They call him Uncle Adolph because of the flag in his room. It’s a Nazi swastika his daughter says he took down from a town hall in Germany in 1945, had all his buddies sign with their home addresses, and tucked away in his gunny for the ship ride home. She framed it like a museum piece and hung it on the wall. People hate the thing, it’s got that evil aura, but you have to admit it’s a powerful symbol of the biggest thing that ever happened to the old folks here, the event that made their lives. It’s like a pin stuck in a map, saying this is where we all began. We end up there with our coffees. He takes the wooden desk chair that eases his rickety back and I perch on the Barcalounger as best I can. In his line of sight as his rheumy eyes gaze about him are the flag, his narrow bed and a window framing a gloriously yellow ginkgo, its leaves flickering one by one to the lawn in a lazy breeze.
Maybe it’s the flag or a memory of a similar tree glimpsed long ago in France, but he starts right in, speaking aloud a stream of thought that goes like this. Shoot, when we was fightin’ the Germans, I was all up in there. It was a terror, but (he chuckles drily) there was some good boys among ‘em. We was fightin’ the Germans, and them folks that, well they wasn’t Germans, but you could call ‘em Germans and they was alright with that. And the English. No, we wasn’t fightin’ the English. They was with us. And the Ice Landers. They was with the Germans and then they was with us, I believe. He sets his Styrofoam cup on the desk and forgets it.
My daddy and me we built this place, this nursin’ home every brick. And now I live here. Ain’t that a hoot? And that house over there in the whadyacallit, development, the big one? That fella we built it for, he was a little bitty thing and then he grew up and he got on up to 8 feet. Head like a big old fat pumpkin. I mean 8 feet. Doorways in that house are ten. Every bit a that house is custom-built for giants. You oughta see the bath tub, now that’s a sight. Pretty day. Them trees is all yellow, I can see that. I wisht I could get out and walk among ‘em. But they’s afraid you’ll run off. Funny thing is, I’m the one put them alarms on the doors there myself. Built my own damn jail is what. We used to call them leaves dragon’s gold. Pile ’em up and play.
Them Ice Landers, now I’m gonna tell ya. They was some swimmin’ people and in the cold! They was one day I’m walkin’ along and this Ice Lander’s in this swimmin’ hole, he sees me comin’ and crawls on out and I ask him best I could if he’s alright. He says, Gut! Or Goot! Or whatever, so hell I take my own clothes off and jump right in. Come up, couldn’t get my breath for nothin’, no way. Like ta squeezed my lungs out. I mean cold, boy! And he’s just standin’ there buck nekkid and grinnin’. So I say, alright, and I just dive on down underwater and I’m just a swimmin’. Stayed in there til I was blue. ‘Fore long this Australian fella wanders up, call ‘em blokes. Say, bloke, is it cold? I say come on in, see for yourself. And wouldn’t you know it, he strips down and just dives in like a trouper. Cussed me up one side and down the other, and he knew some Australian words, except he couldn’t hardly get his breath either there at first. We laughed!
That dang flag, I don’t know. Them boys’ names on it, they’s all gone now, wouldn’t you say? I’d like to get down and fix these cracks here along the floor. My daddy wouldn’t have it, no sir. They was this hurricane come up. We dug down under a rock is all we had, felt this cold blow and looked up. That boulder was gone. The Quonset huts. City boys had put ‘em up. Flipped upside down like bowls and the boys with their legs stickin’ out. I can see that clear as day. I stayed on in, got up to three stripes, but that was as far as I wanted to go bossin’ boys around. Come on back here and went to work for my daddy buildin’ houses. You cain’t throw a rock in this town without you hit one we did. They’s a penny in a brick in every one and I can tell you where it is. Ward off tornadoes is what Daddy said. He’d let ya cut up, take a breather any time long’s ya got your work done. It’s a good way to be. Now give me that broom, they’s a big old bug in the corner there boy.