by Tom Pugh
I remember going to A&W in Boardman with my grandpa so often that we had a booth and the owner knew both of our names. We sat across the street from Pizza Hut. Grandpa had two coney dogs and chili cheese fries. I had a teen burger and cheese fries. We both had root beer floats in frosted mugs. I still contest that nothing beats those floats. We went on Tuesdays because it was coney dog day. Grandpa always said not to tell Grandma we went or else we couldn’t go again. I shut my mouth because I liked our trips out. I didn’t know why he made that caveat until he died of trouble following a routine heart procedure. During one such Tuesday, I had exciting news to tell Grandpa.
“Grandpa, you know Spielberg, the guy that made Jurassic Park and Hook and Indiana Jones and—”
He cut me off with a laugh.
“Yes, I know Spielberg,” he said. “Is he making another dinosaur movie or something?”
“No, he’s making a World War II movie, just like you were in!” I said excitedly.
“Oh,” Grandpa replied.
“He said it’s going to have the most realistic D-Day, Battle of Normandy scene ever filmed,” I practically yelled out.
“Oh, no.” Grandpa said and stared into his frosted mug.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Somehow, I had made Grandpa upset by talking about the world’s greatest movie director. The be all and end all of spectacles. Why wasn’t Grandpa excited to see his youth relived?
“I think,” Grandpa began, “that Mr. Spielberg should not film movies about the Holocaust. I think that no films about World War II should be filmed. I think he should stick to films about dinosaurs and Peter Pan. He should keep making children laugh.”
“Oh,” I said.
I realized what I had done. I broke a golden rule. Inadvertently, I made Grandpa think about World War II, something that I knew was off-limits. I knew I’d find out one day why, but I never meant to offend my hero.
Soon after that, our secret sojourns to A&W ended. I never found out if that conversation was the trigger, but I knew that when we left, he was not happy. That was enough.
Grandpa was in a coma for what seemed like forever during my twelfth summer. He went in for surgery the day after Father’s Day and was buried around the time school began that year. The adults put a ban on grandchildren under high school age visiting the hospital. All I could do was sit at home and imagine exactly what was happening to my grandfather. I imagined which tubes were attached to which places. At this point in my life, I was addicted to E.R. which overdramatized every last detail of hospitals. Grandpa, in my mind was attached to all of them.
My father broke the adult-imposed “no-child” rule and took me to the hospital to see Grandpa. Grandma and my mother, aunts, and uncles took up the entire waiting room. They all went silent when I got there. My dad gave me the room number and my mom looked upset when she saw me there.
“Do you want me to go in with you?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’ll be fine.”
I was right. Grandpa had tubes in to help him breathe and to feed him. His teeth (dentures) were in, but looked off-color; he looked much skinnier than he already was. This was a hard accomplishment, because Grandpa was already lanky. His hair looked much thinner, he looked frail, his skin looked like rubber. He did not look like my joking grandfather. He didn’t look like the grandpa with the stash of Werther’s next to his recliner. This was some other old guy with a Paul C. Lettau tag at the bottom of his bed.
I touched his hand and shivered. It was freezing. I whispered into his ear. “Grandpa, I don’t know if you can hear me, but on TV, people say people in comas can hear loved ones. You need to go now. It’s okay to go. We’ll be okay. I promise.”
After that, I collapsed in a chair and cried until my mother came. She looked at my father and said “This is why.”
I didn’t visit the hospital again. I was put on the “really not allowed” list. I wish I could write “he died the next day,” but he didn’t. He lived for a while after that.
One good thing came from Grandpa Lettau’s death. It meant that the golden rule was officially off the table. The younger generation could ask the adults pretty much anything we wanted to about the war. We still weren’t allowed to talk to Grandma about why people were so depressed. I found out at school. I also learned more about the war. I saw Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which indeed opens with a very detailed and graphic Battle of Normandy scene. One man calls out for his mom as his guts are unfurling in his hands.
It was my mom who told me one of the most interesting war stories about my Grandpa. These stories were off-limits when he was alive.
Story One: Grandpa’s battalion was sent to Normandy. Every single one of his friends and people in that battalion died. Grandpa was out of commission because he had to have a hernia operation. He found out the information afterwards.
That explains his A&W reaction. I can’t imagine the guilt he carried. His hernia was an unbelievable stroke of luck, but every single one of “the boys” dying is something I’m amazed he got through. I could understand why he didn’t want to see and didn’t want anyone else to see what his friends went through. Knowing it was probably bad enough.
Story Two came from multiple members of my family throughout the years.
Story Two: Grandpa became friends with a Nazi POW and the two were pen pals for years after the war. The German man’s name was Adam. He didn’t believe in the Nazi cause and even visited the family on a trip to America and then again when he decided to settle here. He gave Grandpa his metal swastika in one of his packages with express directions to “teach the children using the metal swastika so the hate doesn’t spread again.”
My mother described Adam as a nice man that came for dinner. He was friends with Grandma and Grandpa. They did not talk about the war. There was no arguing. There was no political talk. They spoke as friends do. Former Nazi and American soldier: Best friends. I had to know more, but there wasn’t more to know. As a nonfiction writer, this puzzle drove me insane.
No one seemed to know where exactly the swastika went, until my grandma died, when it was handed down to me in a tin full of my great grandfather’s (World War I) and Grandpa’s badges and medals.
Looking through the tin, I always feel closer to Grandpa. I can look at his badges and thanks to Google, I know what almost all of them are. But, the one which intrigues me most is the one sent to Grandpa which was used for years to inspire hatred—the one Adam wanted to be used to inspire kindness.
I had to contact Adam. I asked my mother for his last name, surely there would be some way to contact him through his grandchildren or children or someone in the family. I’m a Grade A Facebook/Linked In stalker. I’d find this Adam. I wasn’t going to ask any painful Nazi questions. I wasn’t even going to tell his children or grandchildren he was a Nazi. Something tells me they probably just think their Grandpa was a German immigrant. “I was a Nazi,” probably doesn’t come up during dinner.
“Hey Mom, what was Grandpa’s POW friend’s last name?” I asked.
She gave me a long last name that I’m holding back for privacy’s sake.
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m just doing research. I was looking in the tin and had some questions about Grandpa.”
“Okay,” she said, interested in my work. “Type in his name, see what comes up.”
I typed in his name and we got a Linked-In profile. It was obviously his son, who is doing quite well for himself. It was followed by multiple Facebook links. Finally, we got to a Youngstown Vindicator link.
“Mom, does that say what I think it says?” I asked.
“Oh, Adam,” my mom said looking sad.
It was a link to Adam’s obituary. Not wanting my journey to be a complete failure, I clicked the link so I could learn about this mystery friend of my family, the Nazi POW, the Lettau family legend, Grandpa’s war story that was little more than a swastika and a child’s story in a tin box. I had to know.
Together, my mother and I learned about Adam.
Adam died in 2007 in Arizona, ten years after Grandpa. He moved to Youngstown in the late 1950s and got married. He had four children. They all went on to be successful. One of his sisters still lives in Germany.
I wonder if his family had golden rules about asking Dad or Grandpa about the war. I wonder if he told them. I wouldn’t ask them or even contact them. It seemed an unfair thing to do to a man that wanted to bury that part of his life.
Having grown up and learned about the war, I now know my grandfather is not the guy who offed Hitler, but he’s still my war hero. I’m thankful for his hernia even though he may have felt guilty for it at times. I’m glad he met Adam, even though no one in my family seems to know how it happened. Finally, I’m happy for Adam that he found a type of happiness in Youngstown with his family.
Tom Pugh is a writer from Youngstown, Ohio. He graduated from NEOMFA and holds a degree in creative nonfiction. He was a founding member of Jenny and is proud to see what it has become.