Dan Szczesny listens to his father tell a story of his time in WWII, and they both learn something.
First published in 2016.
My father is being stubborn. Again.
His laundry sits bunched in a corner. He hasn’t left his room all day and the frustrated nurses at his assisted living facility tell us he rarely ever asks them for help, even if something is wrong.
“I just don’t want to bother anyone,” he says. “They have better things to do.”
I’m not surprised. This is the man my sister and I have come to know. Since leaving his home of 40 years, he’s become more insular, less likely to reach out. My father has never been an open, emotional man; part and parcel of that generations’ modesty. Or so my sister and I thought.
Growing up during the depression on the East Side of Buffalo, N.Y., he spent his life in the steel mill and knew nothing but work and being a provider. And now, here he was, forced to have people do things for him, and he didn’t like it one bit. In fact, he openly resisted, just letting little things (or what he thought was little things) slide so other people wouldn’t be bothered by him.
“That’s why they’re here, dad,” my sister says. “That’s why you’re here.”
My sister is a nurse herself, and up until he became too much of a handful, my dad lived with my sister and her family. My father’s strong will was passed down to my sister. She heads out to talk to one of his nurses, and we’re given some time alone.
“Your sister is always mad at me for something,” he says, but he’s smiling when he says it. “It’s like being in the Army again.”
He brings up his Army days quite a bit. My father was drafted, right at the end of World War 2 and spent a couple years in occupied Japan. He was a supply sergeant and what he calls a “fixer upper” keeping equipment functioning and the men geared up.
“Was somebody always mad at you then?” I ask. I’ve heard a lot of Army days stories, but am willing to hear one again if it means getting our minds off his stubbornness. But instead, he opens up, and for one rare moment in time, I begin to finally understand the man he became.
“Not the one’s you’d think,” he says. And then he tells me a story I’d not heard before, a story that begins about four hours away from Osaka, where he was stationed, on the tallest mountain in Japan.
“We had gotten it into our heads to drive up Mt. Fuji,” my father begins. “Of course you can’t actually drive all the way up and the roads were terrible back then. But me and a couple buddies ‘borrowed’ a Jeep and we took off. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were bored and we thought we could get up there.
“Remember, we were occupiers. Those people… “ He drifts off for a moment, searching for words. “They should have hated us. Maybe they did, I don’t know. But there we were on our way up this mountain, three American Army guys, off base, thinking we owned the place.
“And then of course, the Jeep broke down half way up. Well, I couldn’t get the damn thing fixed, we didn’t know what was happening. But every one of those people who walked passed us, do you know what they did?”
I shake my head.
“They asked if they could help. They didn’t care that we were in their country. Or if they did, it wasn’t their way to ask. So, they just wanted to help us.” Another long pause and a laugh. “Maybe they just wanted us off their mountain!”
And as my dad tells me this story that took place 60 years ago, I realize suddenly, he’s telling me who he is, how he became the man I have always known as my father.
“So, we just put that thing in neutral, opened it up and coasted all the way back down that mountain, flying down who knows how fast!
“We get to the bottom and this tiny old man comes up to us. None of us can understand a word he’s saying, but he sticks his head under the hood, does something, and just like that the Jeep starts up. Can you imagine our surprise! We’re all shaking his hand and patting him on the back, but he’s embarrassed, waving us off.”
“So what happened to him?” I ask breathlessly.
“He just walked away.” My dad leans back in his wheelchair, story finished, lost in a time in his past when he wasn’t quite a boy, but wasn’t yet a man; wearing the uniform that defined his identify up until that moment. “What he wanted, which I guess was for us to not be there, didn’t matter. He wasn’t angry, or sad. He was quiet. He helped us and he left. That’s it.”
Could this one small moment while my father was a young soldier representing his country in a far away and hostile land have served as the foundation of the man he became; this reluctance to complain, to seek help, to simply bury his own needs under the recognition that most folks are in a far worse place. Why bother troubling someone over clean laundry? This little, old man had just lived through war and despite that, stopped to fix the engine of his occupier’s Jeep.
My sister comes back in and the connection between us breaks. She tells him that the nurses are going to be fine with checking in on him more often, but if he needs anything he’ll have to speak up.
He and I share a knowing glance, before he sighs, and says. “Alright, show me again how to operate that help button.”
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