Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white gear).
My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too, not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy-crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but remained absorbed in their conversation.
My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.
My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur evacuated the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.
Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.
In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his hell. And that same ordinary older man murmuring quietly with my Grandfather, fondly attending a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.
I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors are everywhere, and frequently disguised as harmless old men. Also listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.
For example there was George, the high school janitor.
For many years this little old fellow pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Equipped with two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded an immense mop across litter-strewn floors that was wider than he was tall.
To a passing eye George appeared a friendly, gentle, and harmless grandfather.
I often found the old fellow paused outside my classroom door, mop in hand, listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I learned that this mild mannered 80-something had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats heaving and crashing toward Omaha Beach in 1944.
Me “So George, what do you remember most about that June morning?”
The aged warrior rasped in a high, faded voice, “It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”
Then there was Roy Cortes, the jovial, open-faced father of our Student Resource Officer. Smiling, white-haired Roy.
As a teenager he enlisted straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps into the US Army.
Me “What do you remember most about the morning of the invasion, Roy?”
The affable elder smiles slightly, then a cloud passes over his expression. “I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Soon I was regrouped with other survivors. You see, that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with this new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy again begins chuckling.
“I missed the branch, the birds all flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”
Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply smiled and shrugged.
Colonel Clark, George the Janitor, and Roy Cortes. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky.
They came home.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a two-part memoir www.river-of-january.com. Also available on Kindle.