Two Old Soldiers

By  Jim Tritten

My grandfather was a soldier. He fought in World War I, was wounded, and left with the dead in a field hospital. He had taken some serious shrapnel in his leg, and the doctors told him they would have to amputate. My grandfather said that he would not accept that fate. One kind and nameless Army surgeon stashed him in the morgue, where he was treated on the side.

My grandfather was a soldier. He was proud of his service and often stood at attention to the full extent of his 5’ 7”, when I visited his small urban apartment in New York. He marched in ranks and shot from the trenches in his living room. His apartment became a parade field and a battlefield, where the manual of arms was executed and combat stories were told, retold, and his wife said, “Shhhh John, no one wants to hear about that.”

My grandfather was a soldier. When the war ended, he took a boat from Europe to New York, where he reunited with his childhood sweetheart and married her, like thousands of other vets. He worked with his hands at the Otis Elevator Company and when he retired, they gave him a gold watch. I now have that watch and his old meerschaum pipe. He used to smoke that pipe on special occasions, like when I visited him and he told me stories about the war. My grandfather smelled of tobacco and his wife would make him go outside to smoke cigars on the stoop. I would sit with him out there and listen to what had happened on some far off field of honor . . . and horror.

My grandfather was a soldier. He did his duty to God and Country. He served with distinction and was awarded a medal. I saw an old photograph of him in an Army hospital. His hair was dark brown then, but you could see him clearly in a large group wearing a white gown with the medal pinned to his chest. When my grandfather was young, he had a broad dark mustache. His mustache grew smaller and grayed as he grew older – like mine.

My grandfather was a soldier. He liked to drink, sing, and dance his wife around the small kitchen. She would say, “John, stop,” but she loved being twirled and kissed even though his beard was a stubbly gray. My grandfather used to ask me to come to his neighborhood bar and have a drink with him and the other vets from the war. After I went into the Navy, he asked me to come to the bar in uniform with my shiny new gold bar and my pilot’s wings. A pilot in World War I was the modern day knight and he was proud of me and my service.

My grandfather was a soldier from August 1914 – November 1918. Forty years later, when he marched around his living room and performed the manual of arms, he shouted: “Eins, zwei, drei, vier.” He was so proud that he could remember his drill after so many years of serving in the Magyar Honvédség. He had served his King and his Emperor as had every young man from his small village of Bodrogszentes, in what was then Kingdom of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of the eight million men mobilized in Hungary, one million died during the war. After the war, the peace gave that part of the kingdom to the new nation of Czechoslovakia. After the cease fire, my grandfather’s father went to Austria to look for his son, who the Army had said was dead. His father searched Army hospitals until one day he heard his son singing at mass and recognized the voice. When he rushed inside the chapel and saw his son, my great-grandfather asked his son why, as a good Protestant, he was singing at a Catholic mass.

My grandfather was a soldier. He legally immigrated to the United States in 1921 and from the records at Ellis Island; he had $8 to his name when he landed. His brother was his sponsor. After the war, my grandfather became an American Citizen and voted Republican in every election.

My grandfather was a soldier. He had one child – my mother. After I was in the Navy, I was engaged to be married, and the two extended families met at a very formal betrothal party in which the generations were all in attendance. My fiancées grandfather was also a soldier. At the party, these two old soldiers talked to each other in broken English. They both executed the manual of arms albeit in two different languages. Grandpa Romolo, talked about his service in the Italian Army during World War I. Grandpa Romolo had fought as an infantryman on the Italian-Austro-Hungarian Front. My grandfather had also fought in the Italian Campaign. Their wrinkled heads and gnarled hands moved rapidly as they exchanged information about where they fought and when. Two soldiers talking about the war as only soldiers can.

In October – November 1917, these two old soldiers had faced each other in mortal combat at Caporetto, now renamed and in the new nation of Slovenia. Poor generalship, fresh German troops, new infiltration tactics, storm troopers, and poison gas played important roles in the total route of the Italian Second Army. Both of these old soldiers remembered the following month in the bitter cold and December alpine snow. They both remembered when the troops in the field declared an impromptu and unofficial truce on Christmas Eve and exchanged cigarettes. My grandfather remembered killing the young man with whom he had smoked in peace the night before. It brought tears to his eyes and a halting choking to his voice as he retold that story for the hundredth time. Grandpa Romolo recalled his unpleasant experiences as a guest of the Kaiser as a German prisoner of war.

My grandfather was a soldier. He did his duty and survived a war. How could my grandfather have foreseen that one day . . . one of the soldiers on the other side of the battle line would also survive the war, come to America, marry, and one of this man’s grandchildren would be about to marry my grandfather’s grandson. And that union would produce great grandchildren of these two old soldiers that at one time had tried their best to do their duty . . . to kill each other. These two old men, former adversaries in a bitter war, came together in the joy of seeing their grandchildren betrothed.

My grandfather was a soldier. When he passed, there was no caisson, no flag draped casket, no salutes with rifles or by hand. No one passed the flag to his widow and thanked him for his service to his country. Just a simple burial with a simple stone in a private grave under the shadow of a tall old elm tree . . . a silent witness to the passing of another forgotten soldier of a now forgotten war. A soldier who gave all that he could for his country when his country asked.

My grandfather was a soldier. I will always remember his stories, his singing and dancing in the kitchen with his wife, and how proud he was marching in the living room, “Eins, zwei, drei, vier.”

©Jim Tritten

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