Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Caitlyn McPherson
I never really knew my grandfather. Aside from faking Alzheimer’s and saying he didn’t know who I was – which crushed my tender, four-year-old heart – I don’t remember much about him. He was loud, always seemed to be angry, and had weird, green, unintelligible marks on his arms. He had missing fingers, which always made shaking his hand uncomfortable. He was scary, and I much preferred to have tea with my grandmother than sit in a room where all my father and grandfather did was yell at each other.
It wasn’t until after he had passed away and I’d entered college that I really started digging into my roots. He wasn’t simply a cantankerous, old man with three missing fingers, bad hearing, and tattooed on his arms in faded green ink. He was more and there were reasons why he acted the way he did.
Grandpa Robert was different before the war.
* * * *
The water in the irrigation ditch was higher than the past few years combined. The past winter had made the summer months fruitful for the Huber farm. Snow still melted in the mountain peaks that surrounded Utah Valley, helping to turn the farm green. 1938 would be a better year for everyone. The fifteen-year-old sighed. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat away as he looked for his brothers and father who were working in other parts of the large field.
Jarrett, his father and owner of the farm, whistled atop his horse and called his boys in for lunch. Robert slid off the silenced tractor and made his way to the farmhouse. After stopping to wash his face and hands at the water pump, he hopped over the irrigation ditch and took off his hat when he reached the shade of the large cottonwood trees that lined the backyard. A thick picnic quilt and food had been set out by his mother and younger sister.
He grabbed a peach from a plate and started munching as he set down, his feet off to the side to keep the blanket clean. Patricia, his sister, came out the kitchen door and glared as soon as she saw him.
“Father is taking Smokey in. The rest are on their way,” Robert said. He smirked, remembering the high-pitched scream he’d heard that morning when Patty had found the dried cow pie “present” he’d left for her in her underwear drawer. With four boys in the house it was hard to tell who the perpetrator was, though Patty had a good idea.
Patty’s glare intensified as she set a plate of freshly sliced bread on a smooth part of the quilt. “I hate you,” she whispered.
“The next one will be better,” Robert muttered, tossing the peach pit across the yard, “so don’t worry.”
Lunch was grand. They had an hour off before having to go back to work in the fields; Jarrett needed to head into town. Arthur would go with him to purchase new bags of seed and Robert, though responsible when it came to farm work, couldn’t supervise the whole field. Once lunch was done and utensils put precisely in their spots, Jarrett went with Mary, his wife, to the barn to harness Smokey for the ride.
Patricia, ever alert with her four brothers around, sat up straight, while Arthur, Robert, and John lounged in the shade. Gerald found his dog, Lady, and she started chasing him around the yard. The sky was blue with spotty clouds lining the mountains. Robert sighed, full-bellied and tired, just as Gerald tripped over his legs. Lady jumped over both of them as Robert sat up.
The six-year-old got up like a flash to escape the hard knuckles of his older brother. Robert’s missed, but he too was soon on his feet and chasing after the boy. They weaved in and out of the line of trees to the hearty laughter of Arthur, the oldest. Lady barked and ran after them in this well-loved game and John, quick as a Jesse Owens, joined in their game of tag.
Nearing the irrigation ditch, the older brother caught the younger and hurled Gerald into the deep trench. Water enveloped him and splashed up at Robert. Racing up behind him, John slammed into Robert’s back, forcing both of them to topple in after Gerald.
Arthur laughed harder and got to his feet. He took off his boots before he slipped into the water with ease and started horsing around with the rest of them.
As soon as Patricia stepped to walk back into the house, all became quiet. She turned to scold or throw a punch, but it was too late. Robert skulked up behind her, knocked her knees out from under her, and caught her in his arms. She screamed and thrashed like a banshee, but he held her firm as he carried her to the edge of the ditch.
“If you—So help me, I’ll murder you if you—“
The boys rolled over laughing. Robert’s eyes gleamed with pride.
Patricia snarled, water dripping from her nose and darkening her brown hair to black in the shade. “Robert!” she seethed. She stomped up the embankment ready to slap him.
“Patricia, stop!” Jarrett shouted. Her hand froze. Mother and father had heard Patricia’s scream, and the game was up.
She would get him later. Mary ushered Patty in the house to get her changed.
“Boys, go get dried off,” Jarrett’s normally happy tone was stern. “Robert, go to work.”
Robert started to make his way to the house to dry off with his brothers but his father’s crooked finger stopped him. “Go out to work, now.”
Robert left the shade of the tree to the tractor and plow, sopping wet and alone. “It was worth it,” he whispered to himself. Before long, his clothes were as muddy as the color of his hair.
* * *
This boy got lost sometime after he answered his nation’s call to serve.
Robert was a World War II veteran. At age seventeen he followed his brother, Arthur, into military service by lying about his age. His small, rowdy group of friends joined with him and all became combat engineers in the National Guard. They were trained to build roads and bridges, defuse bombs, and clear minefields. Even though he was in the European Theatre and Arthur was in the Pacific Theatre, he felt proud to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
In 1944, just before the Americans invaded France, Robert and his buddies were stationed in Great Britain along with hundreds of thousands of other troops, part of a massive buildup. By the end of May it was clear that the invasion of mainland Europe was coming soon.
In the weeks leading up to D-Day, Robert was assigned to the 115th Combat Engineers. They were tasked with clearing the mines and obstacles around Portsmouth Harbor, where a large portion of American and British troops would embark. While they would leave for France, the boy my grandfather was would be lost.
Sergeant Robert Huber rolled up his sleeves to reveal the tattoos of green naked ladies. He smiled and lit a cigarette before lowering himself to the sand.
Things went wrong sometimes. A few days previously an engineer was defusing mines down the coast; the wrong wire was clipped, a piece moved too quickly, or a pressure plate triggered. My father and aunt always described the poor soldier’s funeral in a particular way: “They put him in his helmet and sent him home.”.
“Huber, you paying attention?” a lieutenant asked, his knees and elbows in the beach’s sand. He didn’t want to proceed if Robert wasn’t prepared.
Robert shook the thoughts of what could happen out of his head and knelt into the soft grit. “Just go.”
Their fingers slowly worked their way around the ever-changing configurations of the English mine. To keep the Germans guessing, the British would modify the mines regularly, changing the colors of wires and placement. But this development made it difficult for the Allied engineers side as well.
For my grandfather that day, something went wrong.
The mine blew.
Shrapnel exploded from the small tin casing. Sand and debris shot into the air and water. It was angled enough away to miss most of Robert, but bloody bits and pieces of the lieutenant were being washed clean by waves ten feet away.
Robert’s hand and chest bled. The pain seared like a hot knife. His ears rung. Everyone stopped what they were doing, if they could, and raced to the crater in the sand. Robert was carried away to a nearby aid station. They wrapped his hand and bound his chest and bloodied arm, all of which were peppered with shrapnel.
He was alive and screaming.
* * *
Grandpa Robert would never see the battlefield. He spent weeks in the hospital, chained to his bed by his injuries. The independent twenty-three-year-old had to be waited on constantly by nurses and doctors. It was degrading. It was humiliating. He had been a few days away from participating in the greatest invasion in history, but instead he was lying in a hospital bed broken and torn.
Once healed well enough, he traveled from England to Washington DC, then on to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado where he spent the remainder of his military duty. Two years later, he boarded a train on the Rio Grande Railroad for the farm.
As he stepped onto the yellow passenger train in full military gear, he hoisted the canvas duffle bag with everything he owned in it over his aching shoulder. His left hand held onto the green shoulder strap while his injured right hand, still red from the shrapnel and with fingers that looked like lopsided stairs, was hidden in his brown dress uniforms pocket. Dog tags hung on a silver beaded chain around his neck and he shifted in his black, squeaky dress shoes.
Robert sat in a leather chair that faced the train’s engine. The men around him were smiling, laughing, and cracking jokes. He would have joined in, but his injuries ached more than normal. His eyes were angry and he clenched the unlit cigarette in his mouth.
The train lurched forward. His eyes clamped shut and he breathed through his nose like an angry bull as he forced the pain down. The hard jolts and sudden movements made him want to give it all up. Almost nothing was worse than the throbbing, stabbing pain that pumped through him when he moved. But seeing the farm again and knowing his family was there made it bearable enough to keep on.
Once the train was surrounded by trees and firm stone mountains rested on one side of the yellow train cars, he grabbed his belongings and moved down cars toward the caboose. He passed new, non-military passengers as he made his way back. Children rushed past him looking to the windows. Mother’s held screaming babies. Men in dark suits and ties read newspapers and grumbled at the noises around them.
He reached for the restroom doorknob with his warped, misshapen hand. The cool metal turned under his missing fingers and he stepped went inside. Unlaced low-quarters dropped to the wooden floor. A brown tie fell next to them. His shirt and pants laid a drift on the open duffle bag as he shifted into his civilian clothes. Blue jeans. Pliable cowboy boots and hat. A blue and black flannel shirt covered the green, naked ladies tattooed on his arm. Stuffing all of his military gear into the rough, green bag, he once again hoisted it onto his back and left the restroom.
The train passed through high-altitude farm country and into mountain land. The landscape raced behind him as he stood in the yellow caboose and stared out the window, bleak canyon walls giving way to a wide valley carpeted with evergreens. A few children fought over who got to go up the ladder to peek out the upper windows. A little girl in a pressed, blue dress pouted as he passed trying to get to the door. Their squealing was fainter than they had been before England. The explosion had damaged his ears so that he had to raise his voice to hear himself clearly. He closed the door behind him and silenced their noises.
He dropped the bag from his shoulder to the grated landing, the strap still in his heads. This bag had followed him across the country. Across the ocean. It had sat among other bags of men he knew. Men whom he would never see again in this life. This bag, everything it held, had changed his life and in a way he didn’t want.
The signature on the enlistment contract was from a boy who thought he knew what he was joining. Uncle Sam pointed at him. He was “wanted for the US Army.” He was supposed to be that hero who could clear the way to Hitler’s bunker, but he couldn’t even get off the beach. He was supposed to build character and bridges by being in the army, but he lost his fingers and found pain and never-ending nightmares. That wasn’t on the recruitment poster.
He was through.
Robert grunted as he hurled the bag of military gear off the side of the train. He watched it slide down the mountainside causing a miniature avalanche of rocks to tumble down after it. The military would be lost forever in the grasses of the high mountains somewhere between train stations.
Turning to enter the caboose, he heard a small clink. The dog tags. The warm metal slipped over the freshly trimmed hairs of his neck and over his large, Huber ears. Two inches of metal with five simple lines:
A group of numbers.
A blood type that he’d seen too much of.
Nothing here said military. But everything was military. He could keep this piece of metal. Hide it away. Never look at it again. But then they would still be present. The Army would still be in the house, somewhere. He would know exactly where they were every time he saw his fingers, every time his shoulder throbbed, every moment his ears rang. A reminder.
There were enough reminders on his person that he could never get rid of. Too many reminders of millimeters of metal embedded in his bones. Reminders every time he saw a buddy’s face whom he’d served beside. Every time he undressed for the evening and saw the green marks on his arms that he would later have to explain to his wife.
Robert held the tin in his hand that was only partially there. He wouldn’t be able to get rid of it all, but what he could leave behind he did.
He stepped off the Springville Station platform without dog tags, dressed in farming clothes, never to step foot out of Utah or Idaho again.