On my 21st birthday, I woke up in the morning and drove to Dairy Queen. I got soft serve vanilla ice cream with strawberry topping and I ate it for breakfast. Why? When I was a child I asked once if I could have ice cream for breakfast, and my mother said, “You can have ice cream for breakfast when you’re 21.” And so I did.
My father spent his 21st birthday in a prisoner of war camp. Deaf in one ear, and completely flat-footed, he could have easily been a “4-F” and escaped service for medical reasons. He was a peaceful man but he, like so many of his generation, felt the need to serve his country, and to fight againgst the fascism that was threatening to engulf the democratic nations of Western Europe, and had even attacked the United States.
When he was 20 years old, he’d been taken prisoner by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, was marched for miles, imprisoned, and starved. Like many men of his generation, veterans of World War II, he didn’t talk about it much. He held his memories close to his chest. If he talked to anyone about them, I didn’t know. It was only many years after his service and just before his death that he shared some of those memories with me.
Starvation does strange things to people. He told me that after a while in the camp, he had the same recurring dream, every night – a stack of pancakes topped with two fried eggs, sunny-side up. He’d dream that dream over and over, a still frame, a picture of a breakfast that never came. He told me that his fellow prisoners got so hungry that once they had killed and eaten a cat that had strayed into the camp. You don’t forget a story like that.
Or the story of the man in the camp, who snapped. In peace time, we’d have called him a boy. Suddenly and without warning in the middle of the day, out in the yard, his mind went. He ran for the fence in a desperate effort to escape. There was nowhere to go, and in broad daylight with armed guards everywhere, he didn’t stand a chance. My father, who was quick to pick up languages, had learned some German. “Don’t shoot! He’s crazy! He’s lost his mind! He doesn’t know what he’s doing!” my father called out to the guards as he ran out in the yard waving his arms. The man kept running for the fence, and he climbed, and the guards didn’t shoot. They waited until he reached the top. And then they shot him. They left him there for three days as a warning to anyone else who might have been thinking about escape.
Any survivor of World War II has stories. Millions were never able to tell them. Their lives ended on battlefields, and in gas chambers, at the hands of the Nazis. My dad was able to tell me some of his experiences, but most of those memories died with him, like they died with many vets and victims of the war. I didn’t even know he’d received a Purple Heart until after his death. But he survived. He survived to marry the girl he left at home, to buy a house, to get a college degree, to start his own company, and to raise a family of five children.
I asked my dad if he ever got his stack of pancakes with the fried eggs on top. I imagined it being his first meal after the Russians had liberated the camp. The Germans had heard that the Russians were coming, and they left quickly in the night. The prisoners hadn’t known what was happening until two days later when the Russian army came and let them out, confused and near death. No, he told me, he never did have the pancakes and eggs. It took months in the hospital to build his system back up to where he could eat normally. He began at 5’11” weighing less than 100 pounds, and started with an IV, then a liquid diet, then cream of wheat, and finally solids. A fellow prisoner, he said, on his way from the camp to the hospital in France had managed to get a hold of a box of donuts and had gorged himself. He died a free man, but still a victim. By the time my dad was able to eat that stack of pancakes and eggs, the desire had passed.
I remember as a child I was not allowed to watch Hogan’s Heroes. It wasn’t a joke in my house. There was nothing funny about prisoner of war camps. There were no handsome well-fed prisoners with secret tunnels under their bunks, and pirate radio equipment who always managed to play their captors for the fool. There were frightened, emaciated young men whose minds and bodies were broken an ocean away from home, who were shot on fences , and who ate cats, and watched their friends die. There was nothing to laugh about. Those were Nazis.
I am tired of people comparing Obama to Hitler. I am tired of seeing signs with swastikas and nazi symbols at health care rallies. I am tired of people saying that a health care plan designed to uplift millions of Americans to give them dignity, and choice and the ability to care for their families, is like Naziism. I am tired of Rush Limbaugh.
As time passes, and as the greatest generation becomes a memory, passing into history one soul at a time, it is up to the generations that follow them to keep “Hitler” and “Nazi” out of the clutches of those who would make them political buzzwords for people they don’t like, or policies they don’t understand. Those words remind us of the worst that people can be. There is nothing horrible about Germans in particular that caused them to do these things. This is humanity’s dark potential, and something that we all need to remember, whether we were there or not, or whether our family was affected or not, because this is what people can do to each other. To strip those words of their power and meaning in order to create political fear for self-gain is inexcusable and needs to be confronted and refuted whenever it arises, by all of us, whether we support the current health care bill and the current president or not.