I forgot that I wrote this post, almost a year ago. I'm going to post it now. Not sure why I didn't post it before.
My grandfather died this past week. He was 84 years old. A soldier in World War II, a father of four, grandfather of many more. Proud, intelligent, and a man of many faults. I called him "Papa". He called me "Matty Matt."
My mother says that I remind her of him in many respects. Not really looking like either of my parents, we can actually trace my looks to him. In our hallway back home, there is a pencil drawing of Artie as a young GI corporal in Italy. I do sort of look like him. Apparently, I also act like him.
I'll remember many things about him. I remember sitting outside with him when we were on family vacation in Florida. The pool in the backyard was surrounded by a pink stucco walkway, and Papa would sit in the stuffed nylon chair beside the white plastic table. He'd sit there, silent, watching my sister and I play in the pool. I liked the smell of his pipe tobacco. He had a leather pouch which he kept the tobacco in, and every once in a while he'd pinch a flaky wad out of the pouch and tamp it with his thumb into his pipe. When he inhaled, the pipe made this calming sucking noise, and then the smell would permeate the air. I liked it. He liked watching the little pool cleaning robot. He even gave it a name-- which I don't remember. "Oscar", or something like that.
His favorite singer was Dean Martin. If I ever mentioned Sinatra, he'd go "Ehhhhhcchh. Deano. He was something special". He spoke of Dean Martin like he was a personal acquaintance.
Papa wasn't necessarily chatty. He wasn't the type to call me over, or "entertain". He preferred to sit quietly. When I asked him what he was doing, he'd reply that he was "thinking." He spent a lot of time "thinking". I never asked him what he was thinking about. But if I had to guess, I'd say the past. He was thinking about Italy-- his favorite country. He was thinking about his youth. The reason I know is that I do the same thing. I always do it. I think about Germany. I think about France. I think about college. I think about past girlfriends and past almost girlfriends. I think of the good times. Luckily, I haven't had many bad times.
I saw Papa cry once. Really, I made Papa cry once. We were talking about the war. Just him and me. We were sitting outside, at the big white plastic table, and I was trying to figure out a way to bring the war up. That sort of thing is fascinating to a little boy (even 25 year old little boys). That's right-- we were playing chess. Papa and I often played chess. Most of the time, he'd bring it up too. He'd ask me if I wanted to play. Of course, I would say yes. Most times, he let me win. But, he'd go through the whole game and tell me what a good player I was. We didn't talk much during our chess games, but during this particular game I wanted to talk about the war. I'm not sure how I brought it up, but somehow I got him talking about it. He told me some stories. Some of them I had heard before. But, after some prodding, he started to tell me a story he hadn't told me before. As I later learned, he hadn't told anybody about this one:
He was on patrol in Italy with his platoon of about 10 guys. They had funny nicknames like "Boofta" and "Big Daddy Jack Rabbit". I'm sure there's a story behind those. Either way, Papa had a nickname too. I forget what he was called. But, I seem to remember it was something like "Johnny". It was a normal name-- just not his name. Anyway, he was on patrol with these guys and they came upon a pillbox-- a fortified concrete bunker, usually with a machine gun inside. Since they couldn't go around the pillbox, they had to "take it out". A flamethrower was called in, but apparently that guy got shot before he could use his flamethrower. Here, I forget what exactly happens, but I remember Papa telling me that the pillbox got hit with the flamethrower and that he ran over to the hatch leading inside the pillbox. He remembered the smoke, the screams, and the smell. Now, Papa started to cry. He fired his rifle blindly into the smoke. I didn't ask any more questions.