Second post in a series about military veterans I’ve known, working as an occupational therapist and researcher over the years.
Okay, he’s a half pint. He’s a squat Puerto Rican with no right to vote but that don’t mean he gets outta military service. Drafted, but he’s mean as beans, and he’s been diving the shipwrecks since he could walk, so ten minutes post-induction he’s a Demo Unit leader, and he is bad! He’s fit to swim through the Berlin sewers and reach up, cut off Hitler’s one hairy ball while that squirrelly madman sits the toilet. He thinks about that for real. And the feats he pulls off during his tour are just as outlandish. Dynamites shipyards then floats away on the outgoing tide, hitches a U-boat ride up the Rhine, drags uniformed Nips offa Tokyo boardwalks and slits their throats just to keep his hand in. Which is sort of a joke, because along the way his right hand gets torn off. You may want to know how, but there he won’t go.
So he rehabs in New York at war’s end and figures why not stay? No work in PR for a hard nut lefty. And he gets this religion jones, goes to confession, thinks it through. The only way to fix it, he figures, is to make himself into a good man. Cuts a deal with God, one good deed for every bad one during the War, and tacks up a wall chart to keep track. It’s a tough calibration, matching up a gutted Nazi to a plaster repair for the landlord, balancing cigarette handouts with cigarette tortures. He’s getting on in years now but still toeing that line, even to the point where he’s a trusted bagman for an Orthodox Jewish gold merchant in the 40s.
Doddering up Broadway with his heavy satchel, he looks like a garden gnome with a shaggy beard. So the thug kids who roust him figure him for an easy mark. How would they have guessed? The years of scratching off deeds on the wall, the sleeping catlike reflexes. The old man’s prosthetic hook plucks out the eye of the first with a single ruthless swipe. The other guy stares aghast but then is down the street running before his buddy hits the ground. People rushing by, it’s all happened too fast to register. The little man bends, tucks the satchel between his knees and calmly wipes his bloody hook on the crumpled man’s pants cuff. One crepe-soled shoe crushes the plucked eye with a satisfying grapelike squish. Then he takes up the satchel and dodders on.
So how do I know all this? Next day he shows up at the VA prosthetics clinic and tells them he wants the whole length of the thing feathered. Prosthetist asks, like a saw? Yes a saw, for traction. For traction? He’s bad. He’s WWII Navy Demo. With a list to balance. Which for some reason he’s brought with him. And shows me.