D-Day and Captain Marvelous

By Paul Wortman

June 6 is the anniversary of D-Day — the day in 1944 when the Allies landed in Normandy and the final phase of World War II (WWII) began. It comes a bit more than a week after the original D-Day, as in Decoration Day, now renamed Memorial Day and unfortunately celebrated as the unofficial start of summer with its three Bs—beaches, barbecues, and bikinis. A friend sent me, as a reminder, one of Whitman’s memorable Civil War poems — about the war that Decoration Day commemorates, the day when we are supposed to visit and decorate the graves of our fallen fathers, brothers and uncles. Sadly, they are now being joined by mothers, sisters, and aunts.

On this day I think of my uncles—Charlie, Jack, and Mack. All fought in WWII. D-Day was a week before my fourth birthday; yet, I clearly remember my Uncle Jack who died in action five months earlier. He is one of my first memories. And then Charlie and Mack. Both returned from the war. Mack never spoke about it, but Charlie did.

He was one of the top navigators in the Air Force and flew with Truman and MacArthur all over the world. I remember my six-year old eyes bugging out as he showed me the currencies he’d collected on all his wartime travels. He told me that in China, where he met Chiang Kai-shek, they still practiced infanticide and the Yangtze River was filled with drowned infants. Charlie was the true all-American, happy warrior, ever smiling and always your friend. He passed away last year.

I remember that the last Civil War veteran died around the time Charlie showed me the money, and a decade later reading William Shirer’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which described the brutality of the concentration camps where half of my maternal grandmother’s family had perished. There were gruesome photos, too, that I’ve never forgotten, of open pits filled with bodies.

When I was sixteen I got a summer job cleaning oil burners. All the guys I worked with were WWII veterans. They spoke of the war. I remember one saying how he had to “stack up bodies like cordwood” after the battle of Peleliu in the Pacific. I thought it strange that they would often go into the vacant living rooms of the houses, open the bar, and take a shot of hard liquor. Now I understand.

I don’t know where Charlie and Jack are buried and I haven t decorated their graves. But they have decorated my memories, as the following poem attests.

The Potato Chip Man

I’ve always had a passion for potato chips.
Is it some nervous addiction,
or a celebration of a smooth, round, salty treat
like some happy childhood memory that is
still crisp despite the years?

A small boy answers the snappy knock on the door.
A smile and a hand descend from the heavens
holding a tiny miracle—a 5 cent bag of
State Line potato chips.
Shazam! Uncle Jack in his pressed khaki uniform
is Captain Marvelous.

A year, a war, a holocaust, a childhood
goes screaming by.
A little boy stands uneasily before a stern
poster of Eisenhower in kindergarten.
Uncle Jack was killed at Anzio; shot by the Nazis
after fleeing Germany eight years earlier.
The bastards!  On the home front there is no
armistice in the unrelenting parental warfare.

Now, have I grown old and brittle
ready to snap with the next crunch of life
like some old salt who’s been worn razor-thin
from voyages through the tumultuous seas of life?

And still I am a muncher of chips
savoring their crisp taste
gently sprinkled with salty tears.
And I remember that day as yesterday,
today, and tomorrow
when love descended from the sky
in a 5 cent bag of State Line potato chips.

— Paul Marshall Wortman
June 6, 2006

 

DID WORLD WAR II LEAVE MEMORABLE IMPRESSIONS ON YOU?

If you’re willing, perhaps stirred by the 50th anniversary of D-day, please tell us.

To read Dave Hovland’s thoughts on D-Day, click here.

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