Thursday, June 2, 2011

Postwar stories

When my dad got back from the war, his right hand shattered by shrapnel, he was stationed in California. Since he was wounded, my mother, whom he’d been dating before the war and writing to during the war, decided to accompany him to take care of him, and they bought train tickets as far as Chicago. In Chicago, they tried to buy tickets for the remainder of the journey, but individual seats were available for servicemen only. They tried to buy a double berth but were turned down because they weren’t married. Off they went to a justice of the peace, then back to the station. “We’ll take that double berth,” they told the ticket agent. And thus began a marriage of 66 years and counting.

My dad was in and out of the hospital for the next two years as doctors operated 15 times to restore function to his injured hand. Between surgeries, he retook three classes he had flunked at Lehigh before the war, and my mother completed the degree she had begun on the East Coast. To support themselves they worked at the Del Monte and Sutter canneries, my mother on the fruit-cocktail line, where she was responsible for spotting and removing discolored fruit, and my father manning the automatic peach slicer. At some point, when my dad was putting a peach on the slicer, he slipped and cut his finger, bleeding into the peaches. He was fired on the spot. So he moved on to a tomato cannery (I guess blood in the fruit wasn't as conspicuous there). Amazingly, they continue to have an appetite for canned food. Between times, they paid their rent in kind, my mother babysitting and my father slapping up sheetrock.

These stories, told at the dinner table partly by my mother, whose speech is as shattered as my dad’s hand on his return from the war, and annotated by my father, whose burry voice is difficult to hear, cast this ancient, doddering couple as can-do Wild West figures, improvising as they gallop through life. And in a way, that’s what they’re still doing, lurching from one crisis to another, only now with walkers and canes. 

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