Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Veteran Remembered

On October 10, 1957, a letter arrived for my father, Laurence M. Davis, then an eighteen-year-old from Everett, Massachusetts. The contents of that letter changed his life--it was an induction notice from the United States Army. He had been drafted. Soon thereafter, he arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia, to begin basic training. For a kid who had never travelled much, mostly to the summer home of his parents in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, the heat, snakes and southern accents of his fellow soldiers were a far cry from his staid New England surroundings.

In his own recollection years later, his time in the army changed him into a man. His stories from that time were filled with a mixture of laughter, excitement and dread that mark the life of a soldier. He once told me that he was so homesick at Fort Benning that he often “cried into his pillow at night.” The challenge of being away from home was tempered by the many friendships he made during basic training. He met men from Appalachia who could not read; overweight men from privileged families who found boot camp hell on earth; and men who earned medals fighting in World War II and Korea. He attended cooks and bakers school and began a lifetime interest in cooking (although as a kid me and my brother were subjected to large quantities of spam and knockwurst, our own boot camp to muddle through).
Private Davis was part of the vaunted Third Division and he found himself in a mortar battery. He was stationed in West Germany during the “Berlin Conflict,” when the Soviets built the Berlin Wall and a war seemed a possibility at the time. He told me about the ways average Germans sought to escape from the East by climbing the barbed wire fence to the West or by pole-vaulting over it or digging tunnels under it. It was in West Germany that he met Elvis Presley and would insist to me that the King of Rock ‘n Roll was a dedicated soldier who received no special treatment (the army allowed Elvis to sing in the mess hall on Sunday mornings—quite a sight to see, my father mused quite often).

It was in the army, far from the discipline of my grandparents’ house, that he began to experience the freedom to make decisions for himself. He smoked and drank and raised hell, a common pastime for most soldiers. Once, on a weekend pass, he and two of his buddies decided to take in the local taverns and drink German beer. They bought lederhosen and tried to blend in with the locals. After quite a few stops, they found themselves in the middle of a dense forest. One of his friends spotted an inn and they quickly made their way inside and entered the bar. The customers stopped their conversations and stared at them while the bartender poured their drinks without saying a word. As they sipped their beer, my father turned around to see a roaring fire and, hanging above the mantelpiece, a life-size portrait of Adolf Hitler. They quickly finished their beers and left the inn, making their way back to base. Unfortunately, they missed roll call and my father lost a stripe—he was busted from sergeant to corporal, but came face-to-face with the legacy of World War II in that small German village.

In the army he travelled to France, Belgium, Britain and throughout West Germany. He also travelled to Turkey as part of an honor guard (when he met my wife years later, he made her blush by bragging that he ate a certain part of a bull, a Turkish delicacy, which will remain nameless). This was heady stuff for a young man who had never travelled extensively. He became an expert on the parts of Europe that only a young soldier can appreciate. When I visited France for the first time he told me to visit the Pigalle. When I told him that it was the red light district of Paris, he replied that it was the best part of the city and that I shouldn’t miss it. To a twenty-year-old, I guess the Pigalle had everything else beat.

The army was an important part of his life, and he could hardly contain his pride. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor and joked that peacetime soldiers such as he were “drugstore soldiers,” meaning those who could show off their uniforms at the soda fountain without fear of going off to war. His family was full of war veterans—his great uncle served in World War I, his three uncles in World War II and his brother and brother-in-law in Vietnam. When he died in January 2008 I was comforted to know that he would be eligible for a military funeral and a military marker. It got me thinking of the countless numbers of men and women who serve in the armed forces, some who fight in wars and most, like my father, who serve their country in peacetime without much notice. Veteran’s Day is the ideal time to recognize all who serve or have served this country.