A German potato masher filled him with shrapnel and a 7.92mm round, probably from a Kar98k bolt-action rifle, passed through his right arm, severing nerves that would leave him with permanent numbness in his right hand. The shrapnel would still be working their way out of him well into his 70’s. The rest of his unit KIA, he was assumed dead and left by the Wehrmacht. Somehow he kept himself alive until the rest of the 3rd Army was able to catch up with him. He then spent a year in a British hospital recovering from injuries both physical and psychological. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder didn’t exist as a real condition then, and his jumping at loud noises or the nightmares he had every night for the remainder of his life were things no one was prepared to deal with.
When he returned home to Paterson, he was one of the few men to make it back from the European theater. He would sit on his front porch, still in bandages, and smoke his Lucky Strikes. The young Italian girl, Emelia, who lived across the street felt sorry for him – a strong man who still needed help doing the simple things around the house. So she would go over with dinner, help him tie his shoes, sit and talk. They married not long after and soon gave birth to their only child, my mother.
On Thursday, November 8th, 1962 my father headed over to Srob’s Dairy Farm on Outwater Lane, in Garfield, New Jersey. He was 14 and playing in a pick-up football game. Being the fastest kid in his school, he naturally was the running back. On one running play, my dad was tackled by a kid named Craig De Vore, a legal tackle, and everyone heard a loud crack. At first my dad assumed it was the nearby wooden fence. He thought that maybe someone ran into it. Of course it wasn’t the fence: it was his leg.
My father spent months in the hospital and had multiple operations putting in screws and cleaning up infections. His athletic career, for all intents and purposes was over. Instead he would spend his time learning to use his leg again.
A few years later my father received his draft notification and headed to the Federal Building in Newark. It was filled with people trying to do anything to get out of being accepted for duty. Young men were wearing dresses, putting cigarettes out on their arms, trying in vain to break some sort of bone that would give them at least of few more weeks to figure out how to get out of this. The kid in front of my father had chest x-rays. The guy behind him was wearing a neck brace. My father had a folded note from his doctor in his pocket.
He took his physical and went from one check point to the next. At the end an Army doctor asked him if there was any medical reason he should be exempt from service. My father handed him the small note. The doctor read it, threw it on the desk and asked him to sit on a table. He looked at the scar that still runs from his ankle to his knee and looks like the laces on a football. He twisted the leg a few different directions and asked if it hurt. My father said no. The doctor told him to go to the next room.
As he waited all he could think about was that he was going to Vietnam to kill people he had never met. He wanted to be a teacher, not an infantryman. When his name was called he went in to see the officer holding his file. “Sorry, son,” the officer said as he stamped the file. My father took the file and looked at it: 4-F, Physically Unfit For Military Service. My father headed home, preparing to become a teacher. A few years later he met my mother, also studying to become a teacher. Soon they were married, and not long after that I was born
When I think of twists of fate, bad luck, outcomes I didn’t see coming, I think of those two stories. A German soldier who wanted my grandfather dead. A 14 year-old tackling another 14 year-old in the pasture of a dairy farm. Small incidents in the overall scheme of the universe, but without them I wouldn’t be here. Bad, bad luck that turned out to be the reason that I’m sitting at a desk in my office waiting to go home and see my daughter. It’s almost like poetry, where you look for meaning in random events, strange turns of luck and the truly unexplainable. Good poetry is not always finding that meaning. Good poetry is the search for it.
And that 14 year-old who broke my dad’s leg, effectively keeping him out of Vietnam, Craig De Vore, became Sergeant Craig De Vore of the 187th Infantry, 101st Airborne. He died of multiple fragmentation wounds received in Hau Nghia Province, South Vietnam, on 8 July, 1968. It was 4 months into his tour, 13 days short of his 21st birthday. Every time my family goes to Washington, D.C. we look for his name on the Wall and run our fingers across it.