I wrote this eight years ago but it is fitting that I share it today.
October 18, 2010
There is no other way to say this, my father is dying. He is in the V.A. hospital in Minneapolis fighting for every breath and slowly slipping away.
I visit him when I can and we talk but there is not much to say. We have said most everything we needed to say long ago and besides it is hard for him to talk. Still, it’s awkward saying nothing. So we talk.
We crack jokes, we swap stories, we speak of small things knowing it is the small things that make up the big things.
I suspect it is all the comings and goings from the V.A. over the last months that has him telling army tales. Like so many men his age, he kept a lot to himself. He did this to shelter us from the things he feared but now that he is dying and we are grown, there is no need to hold back. So he tells stories. Not so much war stories but war time stories.
My favorites are the simple ones. The ones that answer questions like “What did you do?” and “What was it like?”
One story that answers both questions goes like this.
In 1943, the army shipped my dad to New Guinea to serve in the military police. When he got there he found they didn’t need police as much as truck drivers. So he drove a truck. The thing was – New Guinea had no roads.
So the army built roads – and the rain washed them away.
In New Guinea it doesn’t just rain, the water pours from the sky. On days when it rained a mere five inches the guys in my dad’s unit held picnics – because those were good days.
Most days it rained a lot more – then came the monsoon. The monsoon washed away the few roads and bridges that had survived the earlier rain. What remained after that became so mired in mud that supplies couldn’t move. Ammunition ran low. Food ran low. Everyone had to make do.
When the wet season ended, the roads turned to dust, dust so thick and fine that it got into everything. It clogged filters. It contaminated gas and oil. It scratched eyes. It scoured lungs.
At the beginning of the dusty season, my father was sent in a convoy to deliver supplies to an interior base. The base was located in a cloud forest high in the mountains in terrain so rough that even the locals were unaware of people living just over the next mountain. It had not been supplied in months.
When his convoy arrived, my dad and his buddies were surprised to see how well the base was doing. Everyone looked healthy. In fact they looked better fed than the guys back on the coast.
The base supply sergeant noticed how scrawny the truck drivers were too, so he ordered them to the mess to get something to eat before unloading the trucks.
In the mess tent lay a miracle – a generous supply of exotic fruit set out on the tables for anyone to eat. The drivers found the fruit so delicious that what they could not eat, they stole.
They spent the next few hours unloading the trucks and stacking supplies then returned to the mess to see what else they could steal. They were shocked to find the tables once again loaded with delicious fruit.
So they set about stealing that too – but midway through the caper, an ogre of a mess sergeant banged through the screen door. “That ain’t for you,” he thundered, then added in a quieter tone, “and uh, by the way, how are you boys feeling?”
The drivers wondered aloud, why the concern for their health?
The sergeant explained, “It’s the fruit. We don’t know what it is.”
The drivers looked at each other.
“What I can tell you is this,” the sergeant said, “the locals who gave it to us are cannibals. We don’t trust them, so we’re testing the fruit out on you.”
The drivers now began to inspect each other.
“I hope you boys have a great night,” the sergeant said, “You’ll let us know if you don’t, right?”
The fruit didn’t harm them but the jungle did. My father lost his sense of smell and taste, the sight in one eye and contracted asthma, all in New Guinea.
His asthma got so bad that the army put him on a hospital ship and sent him back to the states. It was how he missed the Battle of Manilla where most of his friends were killed.
The asthma is what is killing him now.
John W. Schiller 1921-2010