Over this Memorial Day weekend, I was watching the 1946 film The Best Years of our Lives. The film is not really a war movie. It follows the lives of three veterans who are returning home from the aftermath of World War II and the adjustments they have to make to their families, jobs, and life in general. The star of the film is Harold Russell. Russell plays a double amputee who must adjust to a world he once knew but without his hands and a young woman who still loves him despite his handicap. “For his performance, Russell won both the Academy Award as the year’s Best Supporting Actor and a second, honorary Oscar ‘for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.’ He is the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same role.” There is a personal connection for me.
I was born in 1950 in an Army hospital in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the same city where Jim Thorpe attended the famous Indian school. The Carlisle-Thorpe connection would come to mean a great deal to me as I grew up. The hospital stay cost my parents $7.15. Quite a bargain, even in 1950. I was a big baby . . . ten pounds, eleven ounces. The doctor told my mother I could walk home. My mother never had another child.
My father had served in WW II in the Pacific. He was at Pearl Harbor when the military base was attacked on December 7, 1941. He survived the “day that lived in infamy,” obviously, since I’m writing this article. It wasn’t too long before the specter of war raised its ugly head again in the Korean Conflict. My father reenlisted. I guess he couldn’t resist a good fight. As a friend once told me, “Once a soldier, always a soldier.” He left my mother behind with two infant children, my brother Rich and me.
When my father died in May of 2001, I saw for the first time the letter the Army had sent my mother informing her that my father had suffered a near-fatal injury. A mortar shell had exploded next to the jeep he was riding in. My father’s foot was resting on the running board. It was the last time it would rest anywhere again. After the explosion, all that remained was a blood stump just above his knee
That “damned stump,” as my mother often referred to it, shaped our lives in many ways. One particular “stump story” remains a vivid memory and a constant reminder of my father’s unvoiced frustration with what was no longer normal about his life.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the New York Yankees at Forbes Field in the 1960 World Series. It was the seventh game, and my father was there with my uncle Charlie. The series was a wild and wacky one from the start. The Yankees scored fifty-five runs, with ninety-one hits, and still lost. Mickey Mantle described the series as the biggest disappointment of his baseball career, and this from a guy who hit 536 home runs and helped the Yankees win twelve pennants and seven world championships. A person should have such disappointments. But for a Pirate fan whose team had not been in the series since 1927, it was heaven!
The score of the seventh and final game had see-sawed back and forth all day. Going into the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied 9–9. With two outs, my father left his seat. His prosthetic leg was giving him fits. A nasty boil had erupted on the tender skin of his stump. Not able to stand it any longer, he left his seat and made his way to the rest room to nurse the painful lesion. He knew he had missed something when he heard the roar of the crowd. He missed something alright. Bill Mazeroski had hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth to win the game and the series. It was the first and only walk-off home run in World Series history.
There are many young men coming back from war in the same condition as my father. They are missing limbs and worse. Most won’t be able to do the things they dreamed of doing. My father, trained in refrigeration repair, had to settle for a low-paying desk job. We lived on the edge of the city of Pittsburgh just outside the dying steel town of Homestead until I was five. My father’s new circumstances did not deter him from seeking better things for us. We moved to the suburbs and prospered.
Even with my father’s physical limitations, I rarely heard him complain. He lived a full life. He golfed, walking the course with my older brother serving as his caddy. He belonged to a bowling league. We would go to the local swimming pool at South Park in the evenings to avoid the daytime crowds. Leaving his prosthetic leg in the locker room, he would use his crutches to make his way to the diving board. Startled onlookers would watch as he gently hopped out to the edge of the board to dive in. He coached the Little League team that my brother and I played on. He even danced at my brother’s wedding.
Life was not over for him because he lost a piece of himself. Our family remained intact. My mother supported my father to the very end. This life is not our end. On his death bed, my father embraced his Savior. It’s too bad he waited so long. For any who are out there who find themselves in a similar situation, take it from my father, your life’s not over. If you have not put your faith and trust in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, don’t wait as long as my father did.