The War Comes Home – Dan French

My father was larger than life. Rippling biceps, which he flexed in front of us. He was 5’10”, but seemed 6’5”, with short-cropped black hair, clean shaven, and handsome as all get-out. Strength oozed out of him. He seemed able to lift anything, solve any task, fix any machine, take care of everything that came his way. With each passing year, a ruddy face grew redder with each empty gin or vodka bottle, and a belly bulge reflected his steady diet of alcohol, mayonnaise, and red meat. He delighted in pouring red blood from the dinner platter of rare meat into a cup, and staring at his eight sons intently, downing it in one long draught. He’d smile, and announce, “Today, we are eating Daisy,” one of our cows. I learned not to become too attached to any of our animals.

Every late afternoon after arriving home from work in the family lumber company or a day of work on the farm on the weekends, Dad poured from his half-gallon bottle of gin or vodka into a tall glass, three-quarters of the way with a couple of ice cubes for chilling, and topped it off with a splash of cranberry juice. “A real farmer’s Cape Codder,” he’d announce. He downed it like one too, with several long swallows within the first few minutes. The second glass went down slower, as we watched his face relax, muscles loosen, and tongue start wagging. He waxed poetic by the middle of the second drink, reciting Hemingway, naming the Kings of England, outlining the Antietam Battle in the Civil War, debating philosophy, the only time he gave away his Harvard pedigree.

By the end of Dad’s third Cape Codder, you had to watch him, eye which way the wind was blowing. An easy-going conversation sometimes turned on a dime into fury, threats, a whipping, or clearing everyone out of the house. He would eventually pass out in his bed to loud snores in front of the TV in his bedroom, the only one in the house.

Dad never talked much about his World War II experience. We knew he enlisted when he was nineteen, and that he was in the infantry on the front lines in France and Germany. Beyond that, we heard only a snippet here, a phrase there, usually when drunk, the caged internal voice desperate to be heard after being trapped behind a stone wall of silence for so many years. Never a whole mouthful of words you could chew over, roll around in your mouth, swallow, and fully digest. More like a snowflake hitting your tongue—you could see it, imagine how it tasted, but when it actually hit, you were always left seeking more, never fully satisfied.

Instead of war stories, what my father carried back came out in other ways.

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My brother Steve and I walked back from hauling creosote-soaked fence posts to the far side of the lower field to use next morning to patch up a stretch of fence. Thirty cows, some standing and chewing on grass, others lying down under the shade, looked at us, indifferent to our familiar presence. Sweat dripped off my forehead. My nine-year old legs felt as if in a sauna, encased in a pair of jeans. “Short pants,” as Dad called them, were not allowed. “Only girls and sissies wear them.”

Dad met us as he walked out of the carriage house after putting away tools. He turned with a glint in his eyes and nodded towards the electric wire. The fencing that wrapped around the lower field started at the carriage house and came around to its other end. Across the top was a single wire, attached to each fencepost with a plastic guide. The wire attached to a metal box affixed to the carriage house, with a small green blinking light that signaled the current flowed at a voltage strong enough to jolt a large cow and prevent it from trying to get out.

“I wonder whether the electric wire is working. Touch it,” Dad told us.

Steve and I exchanged glances. We responded with a laugh; we didn’t know what else to do.

“I said touch it. See if it’s working.” Dad repeated with an amused expression.

I stared at the ground. “I’m sure it’s working, Sir, the green light is on,” I mumbled.

Dad chuckled and nudged me with his elbow. “But how do you know?” he said. “We’ve got to keep those cows in. If they get out, it’s your boys’ fault. It’ll be your responsibility.”

I reasoned, “But Sir, the cows couldn’t get over this fence even if the electric wire wasn’t working. Especially once we finish the patch job on the other side of the field.”

Dad laughed again, but this time, it sounded more like a guffaw. His mouth turned downwards, eyes squinted, face taut, “Touch it. If you’re sons of mine, goddamn it, you’re going to touch that wire, or else. Now touch it.”

I had to weigh which was worse, touching the wire or what would happen if I didn’t. I turned and faced the wire. I was all jitters inside, but I held up a finger over the wire, real steady. “Not just a finger, that’s girlie stuff. Your hand. And don’t just give it a little tap. Bring your hand down slow, like a real man.” And he thrust his right hand out, and lowered it to right above the wire. I noticed, though, that he didn’t touch it.

My heart sank. The jitters went from inside to out and found my fingers. Trembling, I extended my hand. I looked back one last time to make sure he meant it — he did — and with a deep breath, brought my hand down slowly, ‘cause I knew if I didn’t, I’d just have to do it over again until I got it right. I hesitated right above the wire, and then brought my hand down. The volts shot through me—up my hand and the length of my arm, down my body to my toes, and back up. It felt like my body had been taken over, even if only for a few seconds, which felt like a minute. I let out a loud yelp. Then it stopped, except for what seemed like a few aftershocks, a tingling that spread up and down my arm. I had done it. A surge of relief spread through me.

Dad smiled, “That’s my boy.” He clapped me on the back.

“Your turn,” he told Steve. Dad’s eyes bored into Steve. Steve didn’t say a word, nor even turn our way. He just stepped right up to the wire, put his hand out, and brought it down real slow, just like Dad wanted him to. I watched his body stiffen as the current spread through him, and then relax as he slowly pulled his hand away. Only then did Steve turn and look at us, stone-faced.

Steve was like that. I stood there wishing I could have done the same. He never showed he cared when Dad was around; he took the guff silently and got mad later. Steve knew Dad didn’t like him, and he didn’t like Dad. Steve was born by his mom, my stepmom Phee, and her first husband, not Dad. Dad and Steve had an uneasy relationship between the two of them, the tension always bubbling right below the surface.

Dad was now all smiles and slapped our backs, like we had just scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth of a tie baseball game. “Good, lads, I think we are all set. Leave the posts; we’ll take care of them tomorrow. Let’s go in for dinner. We know the cows are safe. At least for now. We’ll have to continue to test out the wire every once in a while in different areas of the field to make sure it works all the way around. Right now, I’m thirsty.”

Dad held fast to his word of periodic testing of the wire. I still had no idea why he wanted us to hold the electric wire when he knew it worked, why he literally wanted to shock us. I suppose he wanted us to experience similar shock and trauma that he experienced while on the front lines, experiences in which he also had no choice. The first time was the worst ⸺ maybe I didn’t know what to expect. Or maybe the voltage was quite high. Each time was a little less jarring than the one before.

I suppose you can get used to most anything over time.

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Dad lumbered up behind me in the living room, woozy and jovial from his usual round of Cape Codders and clapped me on the shoulders. I was waiting for dinner. I looked up, hesitantly. He snuck me a conspiratorial smile, and said, “Let me show you something.” With a nod, he indicated to follow him. Unsure of what awaited me, I padded along behind him.

We crossed through the dining room into the entryway to his back room, the room we called the War Room. This was Dad’s secret room, always with a large padlock on it. You had to unlock it with an old-fashioned skeleton key, and he was the only one with a key.

I imagined the World War II relics inside. Grenades, bayonets, a German war helmet, submachine gun, war maps, coded messages detailing troop maneuvers, letters to loved ones at home written in the trenches, love letters from secret admirers longing for another stolen moment.

Standing there, I tingled with excitement about what I was about to see. Dad took out the skeleton key, winked at me, put down his drink, and unclasped the padlock. He pulled open the door. He looked down at me, slurred, “Come on, don’t be bashful,” and headed in.

The room was small, seven by ten feet. My eyes bugged wide open. I stared in awe at the mini-armory — BB guns, 22-gauge rifles, single barrel shotguns, multiples of each for the older boys, a couple of handguns. I looked forward to turning ten when I would receive my first rifle, a BB gun.

Built-in chests of drawers lined two sides of the room.

“What’s in the drawers?” I asked.

Dad grinned, and opened up one set of drawers to reveal boxes of ammunition for each gun type.

“How about the others?”

“Those are off-limits. No one is allowed in them except for me.”

They begged to be opened, and in later trips to the War Room I grabbed my hand back from the knobs many times.

The room filled up with gin breath. Dad reached over to a corner above the drawers that held the ammo and slid open an eight by twelve inch panel in the wall. A secret hiding place! I was right, I thought. There were secrets in here, and for some reason, I couldn’t figure out why, Dad was about to share one with me.

He pulled out an old wooden box, unclasped the lid, and opened it up. In it were a heap of medals, war medals. I had never seen honest-to-goodness war medals. They shined up at me, like shimmering gold, almost pulsating. I spied some folded-up pieces of paper, yellowed at the edges; I was dead sure they proclaimed Dad’s bravery. “Go ahead, take them out,” he slurred and knocked back a large draught of his gin and cranberry juice. His voice held a hint of pride, even while he tried to hide it with his usual raspy gruffness.

Today, I thought, I hit the mother lode. I stared at the medals. They stared back at me. I spread them out on top of the drawers. A Purple Heart for being wounded on the front lines. A Bronze Star for valor. He motioned to me to pick the Bronze Star up. It felt heavy in my hands and stirred images of battle and bravery.

A real live WWII veteran soldier stood in front of me. He swayed a bit from side to side as he held on tight to his cocktail. He looked as if he were about to pull the pin, lob a grenade halfway across the room, yell “Cover!” and then flatten on the ground with his hands covering his head as he waited for the explosion.

Dad caught my attention, and motioned. “My real medals are in here,” he said, pointing to his body, “in my leg and back.” Shrapnel that couldn’t be removed from a shell that exploded nearby. He pulled up his shirt and showed me a big, old red ugly scar on his back. It seemed to pulsate. “It hurts when it rains.” The metal detectors always went off at the airport. “Enemy fire” and “The Krauts got me,” he told the security officers.

Dad was larger than life. His medals added to his omnipotence, his invincibility. Dad had the power of the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, and Batman all in one. He was the real deal. I was in awe. I was a “sorry ass” as Dad called me a couple days before when I had not done my chores to his liking. He was the man. Bullets couldn’t stop him. How could I ever live up to that?

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Our job for the day done, we had time before later afternoon feeding of the animals.

“What do you want to do?” asked Steve. “Whatever we do, we should get out of here. Otherwise, Dad will find us and we’ll just have more work to do.”

“Do we have time to go to Friar’s and get some candy?” chimed in David.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m not sure we’ll get back in time to feed the animals before dinner.”

“Well,” said Steve, “we could go hang out in the woods.”

At that moment, Mr. Elephant Ears came around the corner. The sun was right behind Dad’s head, creating beams of light all around him. Dad had the uncanny ability to hear everything, even a whisper.

We were cornered. “What are you boys up to? Did you finish your chores?” We nodded yes as we looked for an escape route.

Dad had already had a few. He was in a jovial mood.

“Come over here,” he slurred. He motioned in exaggerated gestures for us to walk over to him. He was several yards to the left of the front door, which led into a tiny mud room and then our living room. “I want to show you some tricks.”

“Yes, Sir.” Steve and I were both wary of what was to come. What now? David, on the other hand, grinned widely. He never seemed to anticipate what lay before him, even when it stared him in the face. Right now, alarm bells created a cacophony in my ears. Yet David was unaware of the minefield that could be one step in front of him. I envied him for that oblivion. His lack of anticipation made sense, and was a trait I eventually adopted as well. After all, what could we do? You might as well not worry about what happened next, since you had no control over it. In later years, my mind learned to not anticipate much of anything and to always have a glass half-full mindset. When things happened to me, I took it in stride and dealt with it. It is both a valued strength and a weakness.

“I’m going to teach you some Army moves. Ways of fighting and killing Krauts.”

“Stand there,” he motioned to me. “Pretend you’re holding a rifle, standing ground.” He directed me to face away from him. My legs felt wobbly, because I knew that whatever came next wasn’t going to be good. In a flash, I felt his arm up against the back of my neck. His other hand grabbed my chin, and jerked backwards. I felt a sharp twinge in my neck. “Now, if I really jerked back as hard as I could, snap, your neck would be broken, quick as that.” My neck stiffened. “You have to make sure that you follow through; you don’t want to give the Kraut a chance to fight back.”

He went on to teach us several moves that could result in broken bones or a life snuffed out – a chokehold, a neck snap, a lightning-quick takedown from behind with a knee on my chest and a hand at my throat. With each demonstration, we were the Germans and he was the Allied soldier fighting for world freedom. With each move, flashes of pain jolted through me; he made sure we could imagine what it would feel like if he completely followed through. We never got to switch roles.

This game became a favorite activity at the end of a long work day. With a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned us to him. Waiting for his next move on me, I wished he gave us one of his whippings rather than playing war games. At least then I knew what to expect so I could put myself into a far-away zone during the punishment.

“Come here, and I’ll teach you a few more holds,” said Dad to David, Steve, and me.

“Great,” our eyes said to each other. I felt like a German doll, with a giant puppeteer manipulating my legs, arms, head, and torso into unimaginably painful positions.

In one swift motion, Dad jammed his left arm around Steve’s back and up to near his neck. Steve yelled. I could feel his piercing pain. Dad said, “I don’t let go until you stop yelling. A man’s got to learn how to take the pain.” Steve let out a few muffled moans. “Stop, stop, and I’ll let go.” And finally, silence. Dad relaxed his grip, all smiles.

“See how you can control someone with just the smallest maneuvers? They’re important things to know.” Steve blinked back tears and rubbed his arm and shoulder.

Dad turned to David, who had been laughing. Dad didn’t like to see his boys laugh in the face of danger. He wanted obedience, fear in the eyes, submission. Dad enclosed David’s hand and bent it forward to try and touch his wrist. David cried out in agony. Dad grasped more tightly. Louder squeals. “I’m not going to let go until you stop screaming.” David kept hollering.

Dad tightened his grip and squeezed harder. I wondered whether you could actually make the base of a hand parallel with one’s wrist, because David’s was awfully close. And then we heard David’s scream rise an octave higher, as though he found a deep reservoir of hurt.

Hearing the primal scream, Dad had mercy, let go, and said, “I was just playing with you.”

David sobbed and ran inside. Dad did not follow him; he knew he had gone too far.

I counted the leaves in the clovers to see if I could find one with four. I didn’t want to look up. We couldn’t leave without a dismissal. I waited out the interminable seconds and minutes like a sprinter at the blocks at the start of a race. When the gun fired, I was ready to gallop off, fill my lungs with fresh air, and head around the corner to freedom.

My three-year old sister Liz broke the tension when she ventured out the door, unaware; she brought safety and insulation. We rolled a ball back and forth with her. Dad loosened up again.

And suddenly, a scream came from inside the house. David stumbled out as he cried. He held his arm, the same one Dad had put a hold on. Maybe Dad had broken his wrist after all. Blood oozed from his elbow onto the lawn. Phee had gotten mad that he was inside in the middle of the day, and whacked his arm with an old curtain rod. The metal edge bit into his arm and caused a deep laceration several inches wide.

Silent tension laced the air as David, Steve, and I rode in the cab of Dad’s red Ford truck. David clutched a blood-stained towel around his arm.

“It ain’t that bad, you don’t need to cry about it,” Dad said softly. I couldn’t decide which was worse—the words or the silence beforehand. Steve stared out the passenger window. David clutched his arm and sniffled every so often. I tracked the windshield wipers, which cleared the glass for a fraction of a second before raindrops appeared again. Swish, swish, swish. I imagined how fast the wipers needed to go so that not even a drop could hit the windshield.

We pulled into Lawrence Hospital at dusk. Dad opened his door, the signal for us boys to hop down from the truck. We filed behind him into the emergency room. I had never been in an emergency room. My eyes stole glances at the few people in the waiting room on this Saturday evening. A mother with two small children watched us, an old, grizzled man stared vacantly ahead, and a young couple held hands as they whispered, oblivious to any disturbance around them. Strange smells of the sick and healing, white walls, and most of all, an eerie quiet pervaded my senses. A wheelchair and mobile stretcher sat in the corner, ready for use. A nurse sipped some coffee while she talked with another nurse, busy filling out papers.

A nurse turned. David clutched his arm. I hoped upon hope that nobody asked what happened. I wished I could shrink and slink away to wait in the truck cab. Dad approached the counter.

“Hello, what can I do for you?” asked the intake nurse.

“It’s my son, David,” Dad pointed to him. “He hurt his arm.”

“Let me take a look.”

I prayed that she just said, “OK, let’s get this fixed up,” and not say another word. She lifted the towel and revealed the large gash up his bloody forearm. “Oh, you’re a brave boy, what happened to you?” My face grew red and my nerves got jittery.

“Oh, he fell down and hit a rock, didn’t you, son?” Dad nudged David, who nursed his elbow. Dad stared at the three of us. Our lips were to be sealed – we were in enemy territory, and the policy was to give your name and dog tag number only if asked, unless we wanted to pay for it later. We were all in this together. Nobody says a word, you hear? Nobody. We’re not letting out this secret.  The nurse didn’t have to drive back with him, we did. Dad conveyed all of this message with one look.

“Yeah, I fell. A big rock,” said David. Steve and I nodded our heads as the nurse looked to us for confirmation.

“We’re just going to have to get this stitched up,” she said. “But no worry, it won’t hurt.”

David smiled. “But first, we need to get some information,” and pulled out the intake form and turned towards Dad. “Sir, what’s your name?”

“Bud.”

“Bud, is that your full name?”

“Yes, Bud French.”

“I mean the name you were born with on your birth certificate?”

“Well, Ed.”

I turned red again—what is he trying to do? I wanted to shout, “Edward, it’s Edward.” On the fourth try, she finally pulled the name Edward out of him. And then she was on to the address.

“And zip code?”

“I don’t know, I was never good at math,” Dad said.

The nurse looked puzzled.

I thought, “Great, first we drag in David, whose arm is busted open, and we gotta hide that, and then Dad has to pretend he’s illiterate, which he isn’t. I mean, the guy cites events in English history and the Civil War all the time, especially when he’s had too much to drink. He’s just pretending to make sure that everyone knows he’s a plain old farmer.”

I could feel everyone in the emergency room look at this motley crew. They had all probably figured out that David’s injury was no accident, that Steve and I were extras in an unrehearsed play. I wanted to shout, “OK, here’s the real deal. My Dad wrestled with us, showing us how to kill Germans, and he bent David’s wrist back too far, so he ran in crying to his mom, Phee, who is not my biological mom, she’s my stepmother and godmother, figure that out why don’t you? Then David came back out screaming after she whacked him on the arm with a curtain rod, ‘cause he made too much noise in the house. Blood streamed down his arm, so Dad figured we had better come over here. That’s what happened.”

And yet, Dad had made clear we were not to tell. A part of me felt the same way. I didn’t want the nurses and doctors and everyone else to see inside our family window. I didn’t want them to know we were a family frayed at the edges. So I played my part and pretended all was fine.

Dad, David, Steve, and I circled the wagons that evening in the emergency room. David regaled everyone with his charm, Dad flirted with the nurses, and we all got lollipops. We restored order. On the way home, we ran over a few ghosts, Dad’s favorite behind-the-wheel pastime. And when we got home we got to lay under Dad’s four-post bed and watch TV. For a whole hour.

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It wasn’t until my father died at the early age of sixty-two, an age range of death all-too-common for war veterans, that through research one of my brothers and I uncovered his wartime path. Dad was a sergeant in charge of a squad in the 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division, Seventh Army. The 103rd Division was in almost continuous combat for six months from November 1944 into May 1945 as they fought their way through northeast France into Germany, including liberating a concentration camp, and finally down into Italy when the war ended. Starting out with 14,253 soldiers, during those six months of combat, including replacement troops, the 103rd Division suffered 6,762 casualties, with 848 deaths and the remainder wounded, missing in action, or prisoners of war.

Sessenheimi

Evening is the weirdest hour
Dug into frozen mud
Of splintered dusky wood,
Corpses sprawled, splattered with blood,
Hideous stench and awesome smoke,
Thick foreboding close around,
And the deepest loneliness of the front,
Frightening crack of unseen rifle fire,
Sodden swollen feet, tenseness dead
In tired nerves, and thoughts in disarray
At gathering black of endless night….

Edward French, Date Unknown

It took me many years of processing these childhood experiences, often through therapy, before I understood in my heart, not just my intellect, what my father had gone through and carried back from the war with him. And I wondered: How much responsibility can you assign to someone who experienced the horrors of war in what was a noble war and yet never received the support that he so desperately needed when he came home?

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iSessenheim is a French town in which the 103rd division engaged in battle with German troops. Edward French is my father.