It’s Not What You Need, It’s the Knot You Need
What we see on the news hasn’t changed. It’s always been bad news. What has changed is the ‘word on the street’. In talking to people all around the country, their stories are getting more and more desperate. Times are tough. There’s no doubt about it.
I know this sounds like cold-comfort, but it’s not the first time.
My grandparents were children of the Great Depression and WWII. Think about that for a moment, and what it really means.
My grandmother told me about the depression by describing it in personal terms. She always prefaced the illustrations by saying, “Oh Honey, there were people who had it much worse than me…”
She told me of killing her own dinner with her father’s rifle, eating pea-soup made from the hulls of peas because the peas could be sold for money, being literally ‘dirt poor’, going to town once a year for supplies if they were lucky, and reading by candle-light only on Sunday nights to ‘save’ the candle. She described relying on neighbors to share and encourage each other. She talked about all the children in the farming community working not just on their own farms, but on every farm together. They shared every harvest to shore up shortages in each family.
When WWII broke out, all the men went to war, and so did the women. They were left to work the farms, businesses, and homes alone. My grandmother told me about sewing, harvesting, and selling her own crops with 13 children in tow. She told me harrowing stories about defending her home against men who were ‘too good for nothing’ to go to war, and about fighting off a rabid wolf with a broom-handle because that’s all she had time to grab.
My grandfather didn’t talk about the depression much except to say, “I was hungry alot.”
The only thing I knew of him was that he was a boxer in the army before the war. He had pictures of himself in the barracks holding his entire body perpendicular to a post with just his upper body strength. He liked to talk about boxing and even taught me some moves. He used boxing metaphors to describe and teach me about life.
“Sometimes you have to move backwards to move forward.”
“Keep your chin up – unless you’re boxing, then keep your chin down and let ’em have it.”
“Lean into the punch and put your weight behind it. If you don’t put your weight behind it, why bother?”
“You know why I like boxing? There’s no whining in boxing.”
He never talked about what happened in the war until, at the age of 13, I experienced what today would be called a ‘home invasion’. Four men broke into my house in broad daylight when I was at home alone. I had to wrestle with how I got out of that situation and the fact that I was prepared to kill four people to save my life. I was having trouble reconciling that with my religious beliefs (I was barely 13). And, well, dealing with it in general.
My mother sent me to stay with my grandparents because I couldn’t sleep in my home. I no longer felt that fuzzy feeling you have when your life is untouched by violent crime.
My grandfather called me aside one night and said, “Kiddo, you’ve got what we used to call in the army the thousand-yard-stare. You’ve got to snap out of it. That’s no way to live.” Then he paused and took a deep breath. He sat down next to me and said, “I need to tell you something, and, for once in your life, I don’t want you to say anything until I’m finished.” I obeyed him, and what he told me floored not only me, but my grandmother, who had never once heard him speak of war in the 30+ years he had been back from WWII.
My grandfather told me of watching men die around him. Some were his friends, and others he didn’t know. He told me in gruesome detail what happened to some of them, and to him. He was recognized for being injured 3 times, and had the purple hearts to prove it, but according to him he was injured many more times than that. He said the ‘hospital’ was just a tent at the back of the line where most injured men went to die. He said, “I’d rather die standing up facing my enemy than lying down, if I can help it.”
My Grandfather stopped, disappeared for a minute, and returned with old scouting maps, medals, and clippings that he had saved. He often pointed to the map where certain events occurred as he told me about them.
He told me of spending three days and nights on a rocky outcropping just underneath the edge of a cliff. It was about 18 inches wide. He balanced himself there while German officers and soldiers were camped on the plateau just above his head. He told me about how the enemy soldiers would often come to the edge just above him to smoke. He described how he struggled not to breath, so he wouldn’t get choked or be detected. He told me about the Leaning Tower of Pizza and how he still wanted to blow it up after seeing many men die around it. He told me about the shrapnel in his body that was still there from a shell that exploded just a few feet in front of him, killing two of his friends. He showed me some of the bullet and shrapnel wounds he had in his torso. I never knew until that moment why he never took his shirt off, even on the hottest days.
My grandfather told me about finding precious works of art in a hut by the side of the road. He described in detail how, just for a minute, the war stopped for him as he held the works of Rembrandt and Michelangelo in his hands and looked at them ‘up close’ before he turned them over to his commanding officer.
He told me how being a boxer was no help at all unless you were in close combat, and how he had to kill as many people as he could, as fast as he could, just to survive. Then he leaned in toward me and said something I will never forget, “Punkin’ you did what you had to do. Never think twice about it, and don’t second guess yourself. If you’re going through hell, just keep walking. You survived. Never be sorry for surviving. I’ve spent too much time on that myself. Just be glad you’re alive, and live.”
I knew my grandfather was the toughest man I’d ever met, but I had no idea until that night what had shaped him. He talked for approximately four hours with no break.
When he finished, I couldn’t say anything for a few minutes. Finally, the questions came in rapid-fire. I looked at him and said, “What did you do when you got tired? How did you stay there for 3 days and nights and not pee? What did you do when they were shooting at you? Do you have bad dreams about people you killed? Did any of your friends survive? How did you survive?”
Some of the questions my grandfather answered, and some of them he danced around. After a while, my grandfather grimaced a bit, took a deep breath and said, “I told you these things so that you would know you are not the only one. You are not alone in having to do things you don’t want to do. Things happen in this world that nobody really wants, but we’re left to walk through it or die trying.” He hugged me, and then he got up and left me there to think about it.
In the next 24 hours, something strange happened to me. I suddenly felt like I was part of that ‘Greatest Generation’. The generation that wasn’t proud or sorry, but was simply grateful to have survived. My courage returned, and I felt strong enough to go to school where some of the attackers also attended. One of them apologized to me, and I forgave him. Three died before the age of 30.
Through the years, I often asked my grandparents what got them through all the hard times, and the response that I usually got was one simple quote :
“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. “~ Franklin D. Roosevelt