By Dan Haag
December 7th was the day that changed my grandfather’s life forever. Life was put on hold and in the blink of an eye he became a soldier. Things like marriage and career were pushed aside to make way for basic training and deployment.
Grandpa Rudeck served in Europe and, unlike so many of those who made it home, often talked about his experiences freely. He always surrendered to the pestering of a young boy who wanted to hear war stories. He’d talk about places like Normandy and Bastogne and I’d run home and search them out on a map.
He was a good-looking guy, tall and strong who dressed sharply with a lustrous head of hair that I always liked to touch. He wore a perpetual grin that said he was about to tell a dirty joke and carried a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He had a bar in the corner of his basement and we’d all gather there and talk football and share neighborhood gossip. A blue halo of cigarette smoke hovered perpetually in the air.
I had little problem picturing Grandpa auditioning to become an honorary member of the Rat Pack. Even now, I imagine him hanging out in some celestial tavern and sharing a laugh with Frank and Dean. Though gone 26 years, the sound of ice clinking in a cocktail still reminds me of him.
I loved to hear his war stories: who needed Captain America or John Wayne when you had the real deal?
When he’d share them, I would envision him single-handedly defeating thousands of enemy soldiers and looking good while doing it, not a hair out of place. “My grandpa’s a war hero, he killed Hitler,” I’d tell anyone who’d listen.
As an adult, I cringe at how eager I was to hear him talk about the war and the often relentless way I prodded him. The idea of grandpa being scared or hurt never occurred to me and I sometimes wish I had displayed a bit more sensitivity. When you’re 8, you don’t think about those things, you just see a larger-than-life, indestructible super hero.
I remember his voice cracking once when he spoke of the Nazis using kids no older than I was as soldiers. As a kid, the idea of kid soldiers was fascinating and I needled grandpa mercilessly for details. He told me of young German boys shooting at his platoon from the trees and how they were sent to flush them out.
“What happened then?” I remember asking. Grandpa just shook his head and took a sip of his drink.
It’s things like that that make me wish adult me could go back in time and tell kid me to just zip it.
Still, those are some of my fondest memories: a stupid, bratty kid sitting on a bar stool next to my sister, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed as their grandfather swirled a drink and shared a tale. Some of them, I suspect, were of the tall variety, but he never failed to enthrall. He had that storyteller’s gift that could turn an innocent conversation about his lawn into an epic adventure.
I like to think that his war stories gave me necessary perspective as I grew older. I like to think they helped mold me into a compassionate member of the human race.
But mostly, I’d give just about anything to sit back on that bar stool across from him as an adult, share a drink, and hear a good story.