Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Danke, Papa - rewrite

(I took a short piece from a couple years ago and updated / rewrote it in anticipation of Father's Day)

James “Gigi” DeSimone earned his travel chops the hard way: dodging shrapnel and Nazis. He participated in the European theater during World War II and as a field medic on D-Day, saw nightmares of the unforgettable kind.

But my grandfather saw some other things in Europe that he could not forget; but those, he wanted to remember. He found them by exploring, when he was able. He sought out good experiences, thinking that all he knew of European life, days filled with explosions and gore, nights dripping with anxiety, couldn’t be the finality of existence across the Atlantic. 

Whether to protect us kids or to keep the unforgettable somewhat forgotten, he doesn’t talk about wartime much. What he does recount are his adventures that took him around France and Belgium, riding on trucks and meeting girls. He even had a girlfriend in Paris, which he likes to point out in front of my grandmother for a good laugh and eye roll. Michelle Dupont may still be waiting for him on, “one of those bridges over that river.”

When he returned from Europe, met my grandmother Alice and started a family, they shared a common love for travel. In their day, Nana and Papa were the avidest of avid world travelers. Mexico, Ireland, Italy, the world was their oyster - scratch that, my maternal grandmother is extremely allergic to shellfish - the world was their, let’s say, filet mignon.

Years slipped by and travel went away with the hearing, eyesight and easy mobility. They even squashed their annual snowbird migration to their beloved home in Florida (the Tin Can, as my cousins as I call it).

But nothing can hide the gleam that undoubtedly sparks in their eyes when they start reminiscing about their travels together. Nana has a hard time seeing, but I know she sees those mental pictures in high definition without any need for glasses.

The night before my wife and I left for our three-week European honeymoon, we visited my grandparents hoping to get a few travel tips and maybe a story or two.

They didn’t disappoint. Nana corrected Papa during a story about a salesman on a beach in Mexico who told my grandmother she was too grande to wear the shawls he sold out of his kiosk.

And then my grandfather got up and told us to wait a minute. He went to his room and came back holding a small 4 inch by 4 inch brown booklet and handed it to me.

On the tattered front cover were the words, German Language Guide.

I held it like it was made of crystal, afraid if I opened the cover the whole booklet would disintegrate in my palm. But Papa said to open it, so I did.

The inside cover reads:

War Department
Washington 25, D.C. 22 June 1943.
TM 30-306, German Language Guide, to be used with the Introductory Series Language Records, is published for military personnel only, and is not to be republished in whole or part without the consent of the War Department. By order of the Secretary of War:
G.C. Marshall, 
Chief of Staff.

He saved it for 67 years. This booklet had been with him throughout Europe and clearly had some wear and tear. I couldn’t help wondering how he used it, since my grandfather never actually proceeded into Germany with the Army. I ignored the thought and instead rapidly began flipping through it like a kid with a comic book.

On the next page was an Archie comics-esque cartoon depicting four G.I.s sitting around a record player, presumably practicing their German. Each one had a confounded look and the small Dachshund dog with them appeared to be howling at their ineptitude (the weiner dog was all over the booklet, I’m guessing he was the least offensive representative of German culture they could come up with in 1943). Humor was undoubtedly the theme. The comics run throughout, each one is of U.S. soldiers mocking each other for their poor bilingualism. There’s even a general in a bathtub that looks suspiciously like Wilford Brimley.

The possibly offensive cartoons led to outdated maps and a few dozen pages of common German words and phrases. All in all, it appeared to be quite a helpful piece of literature. Something I would actually find useful in Germany.

“That’s for you,” my grandfather said. “Take it with you.”

I was touched but my stupid practicality blurted out, “But we aren’t going to Germany. We’re doing France, Switzerland and Italy.”

He smiled and I couldn’t help but think he had something wise to impart upon me but withheld it, possibly knowing the merits of making the discovery on my own.

Instead he said, “Well I wish I kept the French one too.”

At a train station in Bern, Switzerland two weeks later, I emerged on the platform to signs written solely in German. My wife and I anticipated French and Italian along our journey, not factoring in the third language of the Swiss – but Papa had. Too bad I left the German booklet home. That was the last time I didn’t listen to my grandfather. That was the last time I didn’t take a little bit of him wherever I went.

Papa was the original adventurer in the family. He seized opportunity. He saw whatever he could, experienced whatever he could experience. And despite the horrors of war or the difficult times, the only memories he shares are unabashedly joyous and distinctly humorous. And of all the things he has given me, I cherish this outlook the most (his German booklet is a close second).

At the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington, D.C. there is a World War II exhibit. There, somewhat out of the way of 1940s aircraft, is a display case with era memorabilia. The last time I was there, I noticed a small green booklet that looked vaguely familiar. It was the Japanese Language Guide. Next to it in blue was the French Language Guide. But nowhere in the case was the brown German booklet that I had tucked away safely at home.

I’m sure there are many out there somewhere and maybe someday I’ll offer to give mine to the museum. But for now, it’s not going anywhere except with me the next time I visit Europe. Just in case.

I’ve learned a very important word from it.

Danke. As in, danke Papa.

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