Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.

An Hour with my Grandpa

“No, no. That was bullshit. See? I wrote there, bullshit.” And there it was, in all its glory, the shaky handwriting of my 97-year old grandpa populating the margins of a World War II story he was given.

Bull

Bullshit

Not true

He handed me a stack of paper in a plastic folio, color printed and donning the emblem of his old bombardier group he was with for the duration of the War up to, and following, his capture in Germany. The initial bullshit in question was a paragraph referring to the prisoners of Stalag 17B – a notorious prisoner of war camp located in Austria (watch the show) – and how they were rationed roughly 54 pounds of coal per day in order to warm their barracks. He and I sat side by side on the couch, while i frantically scribbled in pen his story of the barracks; Anyone who is close to a veteran of the war – any war at that –  knows the value and importance of these stories. And not just, “I was in the war (insert place and time)” but rather the experience stories, the ones that merit a thousand-yard stare and suddenly you as the listener are beside them in their own personal hell. Living with my grandpa for three years helped me to understand his night terrors, and how the war affected him almost 70 years later. It made me more motivated to listen to him, and value his stories and document them.

I saw his eyes drift into another plane, like an out of body experience, grabbed my pen, and prepared. He would systematically look down and acknowledge and make sure I was writing, smile at me, and keep going.

“54 pounds of coal. I can’t believe it. Where did he come up with that number? Hell, I was lucky to get two – a couple of lumps to warm me in the damn winter. And that part about the Red Cross….” He pointed to the next line marked bull and paused while I watched him relive cold Austrian nights in prison camp.

“We had an outhouse….we’d call it the shitter. 150 of our guys – English, American – all crammed in this barrack, and the shitter was in the middle. It was overcrowded, and it smelled, and I didn’t shower for two years. I didn’t brush my teeth for two years. I lost teeth.” He looked at me, flashed his dentures, and stuck his pointer finger in his mouth, mimicking a tooth brush.

“Anyway, the shitter was covered in wood like an outhouse would be, but you know, we’d get cold. We didn’t have anything to keep us warm; they took so much from us. A guy here, a guy there, one by one would take a piece of wood off the shitter. Next thing you know, we’re all shittin’ in front of each other. Who cared? We had to survive…we had to survive.”

I put myself there. I placed myself in this overcrowded camp, full of filth and disease and downtrodden men, and goosebumps covered my neck. Two years. Two years of hell and back for this man.

“The Red Cross would give the English their care packages, and the Americans theirs. It was never much, and it would only usually go to one guy at a time, last you a week maybe. We all shared our care packages….cigarettes, vitamins, whatever they could give us. When I was in there, I got the jaundice real bad. I didn’t know, because I never really looked in a mirror – but all the guys were asking me, ‘Harry, why’s your eyes so yellow? What’s wrong with your skin?’ The English men gave me an English care package, full of vitamins and vitamin C. I got better, I was real grateful.”

Through the squalor these men took care of each other, and this was the first time ever that my grandpa opened up about the prison camp. He remembered the layout of the barracks, the rations, the food, and the liberation. He remembered the Long March, and the pain in his eyes said so much more than his words.

“I wish I wrote down more of those days, it would be important for people to know about the march. It was so cold, we walked and walked for…I think…maybe 28 days. We didn’t have barracks anymore, we barely had shoes. I slept under a horse carriage some nights, and we stole vegetables from people’s gardens to survive until we got to where we needed. I really thought that was the end for me – out there marching – I didn’t think I was going to make it home to my girl.”